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Canada’s “Big Hooks”


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August 1, 2012 by David Godkin

Canada's "Big Hooks"
Canada's "Big Hooks"

Brad Beuermann’s morning begins the same way every day: up at 5 a.m., quick shower, quick coffee and the tower crane operator for Canadian Professional Crane Inc. in Waterdown, Ont. is off to the job site. This morning Beuermann has a word with the foreman before doing his morning circle check, examining the bolts at the base of the crane, and then makes his climb. Along the way he checks the ladder, gates and rails; watching for cracks, bent bars, anything that might jeapordize his safety or the safety of anyone else who might make the climb.

Shortly after 6:30 a.m., Beuermann is in his cab; testing the electronics, making sure the limit switches all work—trolley in, trolley out, hoist switches up and down. “You’ll then grab your test block, which measures your weight limit at maximum radius. It’ll trip you out when it gets to be too much,” he says. Giving a final blast of his safety horn he’s ready to begin work. “I need to know that when I start my day, everyone’s going to go home safe at the end of it.”

Beuermann has followed the same routine every working day for the past six years. In that time, he has worked on rigs as high as 300 feet or 30 storeys above ground. How he got there is a testament to both the unpredictability of daily life on a construction site and the people who work there. An injury loading concrete, his reluctance to go on worker’s comp and his facility operating other machinery persuaded Beuermann’s employers to put him in the seat of his first tower crane. He’s been there ever since.

A common question, does working at such great heights give him pause? Not one bit. “I grew up loving it. I grew up on a farm in Huron County [Ont.] and at first chance I climbed a concrete silo about a 100 feet high.” Later on, Beuermann’s challenges would increase; taking on higher, more complex jobs with the sense of humour common to virtually all tower crane operators. “It’s not so much the possibility of falling,” he says. “It’s that sudden stop at the ground when you hit it that bothers me.” 

Beuermann will “fly” a range of objects around the work site on any given day—from structural steel and precast concrete slabs to heaters and air conditioning units. Sometimes, his crane will operate in tandem with several others on denser downtown high-rise projects. It’s because of the complexity that tailboard meetings with the foreman and riggers are necessary before the work begins. “When I’m flying pre-cast floor slabs in, I’ll have a meeting with them just to make sure we understand the hand signals and everything.”

The money is very good. He gets to travel and enjoy some great views of the cities he visits; and rules are in place to keep tower crane operators safe, although even he admits the temptation to skirt the rules is strong. Like the time years ago when Beuermann climbed 30 feet out onto his jib to scrape off the snow impeding his trolley’s mobility.

“Of course I was just too young and rambunctious to tie off properly. I slipped but I didn’t fall, hung on and pulled myself up. That was a little scary.”

Today, safety is paramount. Gone are the days when a young guy is thrown into operating a crane from day one because of a shortage of personnel, communicating solely by two-way radio with a supervisor hundreds of feet below.

“We have people sit beside us for a hundred hours watching how we do things and seeing the job from our point of view,” says Beuermann. “You try to keep new operators working on the smaller and slower paced jobs so they can take the time and learn.”

Working together

Nowhere is the crane activity and demand for qualified tower crane operators more intense right now than in Halifax. No fewer than 18 tower cranes dot its landscape—up high on one of them, Greg Walsh. A veteran tower crane operator, Walsh says an absolute requirement on any tower crane site is precise communication with the riggers or swampers below. “Trolley in,” crackles the voice in Walsh’s headset. “Swing left,” comes the second command followed by “Hoist down.” The words may seem ordinary, but Walsh trusts his riggers to use them with great care; any deviation from them can lead to a misunderstanding 20 storeys up, and potential disaster.

“The rigger will give me a heads up, like when I’m swinging around blind. He’ll tell me where I was last time,” says Walsh, “or if I’ve got 10, 15 feet; he’ll always tell me how many feet I’ve got to go.”

Particular care is taken around concrete pours. A typical concrete pour for columns and walls will take two days, including elevators and stairwells, followed by form construction for the deck and a floor pour that lasts another two to three days. Over a seven-day cycle the work can become pretty routine, says Walsh. That, he adds, is where danger lurks. “Sometimes complacency sets in and that’s how guys get hurt, just taking stuff for granted. But we’re lucky that we’ve got a lot of experienced guys.”

The greatest danger is posed by multiple tower cranes working on tighter footprints in a city’s downtown core. But avoiding each other’s pendant lines doesn’t compare with the need to avoid the spiderweb of commercial and residential power lines that loop around and sometimes across a job site. Walsh had first-hand experience of a city’s power lines on the second day of a job in Halifax two years ago.

“The guy who was swamping for me, the rigger on the ground, trolleyed me out too far. I hit power lines and knocked a whole city block out. The crane was grounded thank Jesus, but shut everything down,” says Walsh.

Crane operators tell us that no matter how well you prepare, accidents are going to happen. You minimize these on the ground by making sure the crews get the appropriate training accreditation. But Walsh says rigging courses alone are no substitute for raw experience. “It’s on-the-job training experience. You can take a basic rigging course, but knowing how to rig comes with time.”

The risk, pace of work (a tower crane can make 200 lifts in one day), stiffness and lack of exercise sitting in a tower cab all day are foreign to most other workers on a job site. But for all that, and the lack of company 30 storeys up, Walsh says he wouldn’t change a thing about his day job.

“When you start out it’s kind of demanding. But now I’m used to the pace and know what’s ahead of me when I get up in the morning to go to work. I love it.”

Flying blind

Matt Blackwell has done it all, from working 600 feet above ground at the Rogers building in Toronto to operating a 300-tonne, all-terrain crane on the prairies. The key for both, says the crane operator with DLB Cranes in North Vancouver, is developing precise eyehand coordination, something that only comes with experience.

“You don’t get it right out of the gate, that’s for sure,” he says. “[Sitting hundreds of feet in the air] you literally gotta put that concrete bucket six inches above that form so the guys can get their hands on the bucket and open it.&r
dquo; What complicates things even more for tower crane operators are those moments when they’re “flying blind.” That is when the operator’s view is obscured by other sections of the structure being built.

“You’re dealing with someone on the radio 10-12 hours a day,” says Blackwell, “and you’re not able to see what’s going on at all as it comes up and over the edge of the building.”

A tower crane operator’s job is aided by tremendous advances in controls design. Blackwell says as little as five years ago, operators relied solely on their knowledge of a crane’s capacity, the weight of the objects being lifted, and limit switches that cut out the moment a crane reaches its lift capacity. “Nowadays you’ve got computers that can tell you how far out on the boom the trolley is, how fast your line speeds are and there are wind meters to let you know which way the wind’s coming from. It’s really becoming a lot more user-friendly,” says Blackwell. With joysticks in either hand the operator can move the trolley in and out along the boom, perform the swing and hoist functions faster and more efficiently without compromising the integrity of the machine or his own safety.

“Some manufacturers have gotten into rheostatic or stepless drives, which enable you to be really, really precise with the speeds of the crane, the swinging, the trolleys and the hoist.”

A case in point, Blackwell points to one crane manufacturer that provides infinite variable speed or stepless operation of the tower crane’s swing, trolley and hoist drives. But he’s just as impressed by the controls on the 130-tonne, hydraulic all-terrain crane he operates. Virtually all of it is done digitally. “The computer tells me that the crane is level and how much pressure is actually going through each outrigger into the ground,” says Blackwell. “That becomes a factor when you’re lifting heavy pieces. You don’t want to go through the asphalt.”

Barry Deacon agrees. The “Big Hook”, as he is called by his colleagues at Sterling Crane in Edmonton, says the technology underpinning crane technology “has changed massively.” If there’s a downside it’s the loss of “feel” that crane operators have for their equipment. Listening to a machine’s hydraulics, for example, can tell you a lot about how it’s performing.

“Some people don’t have the sense of that and go by their gauges,” says Deacon. “I go by those too, but a lot of times I can also feel the machine. Like bringing down a big tower for example, a lot of the times I can tell you if I’ve touched a stud on the way down just by the feel of the machine.”

Crane operators provide a very specialized service and it’s because of this that they’re considered a breed apart. Tower crane operators, in particular, belong to a kind of informal fraternity. Perched high above the site all day long, with few opportunities to socialize with those below, tower crane operators make up for it by staying in touch with each other long after a job has finished.

“It’s a real small community and I still talk to guys in the tower crane community that I haven’t seen in 10 or 12 years,” says Blackwell. “There’s only so many of us,” Walsh adds. “Everyone kind of knows where everyone is. They still call me up and we talk.” Tower crane operators have more in common than the average employee of a construction company—and a lot more stories, says Beuermann. “You understand what they’re going through.”

David Godkin is a B.C.-based freelance writer. Send comments to editor@on-sitemag.com


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