Ed is a boom truck operator who works for a large building supply company in the Lower Mainland. He started out working in construction. While recovering from a serious car accident, he worked in a machine shop and eventually became a driver, making two trips a day from Vancouver to Whistler.
“I had to get out of that kind of driving. I had a friend with a boom truck; he hurt his back and couldn’t work so he asked me to drive for him. He taught me how to run it and I decided this was a job I would enjoy.”
For Ed, the combination of physical work, mental challenge and variety makes driving boom trucks a satisfying career.
“Your job isn’t just to take stuff off your truck. You might go onto a job site and be hanging big walls, moving equipment and machinery or moving containers around. There are so many different things to do every day and I like the variety.”
Ed’s day starts early. He usually leaves his house by 5:45 am and goes to the shop to pick up his truck. On the way to work, he’s already thinking of the day ahead – the job sites, the work he’ll be doing, his truck and, of course, the weather.
“I don’t look forward to working when it’s raining because some job sites are mud holes. When you’re on a residential job site and there’s nobody there, you have to put all the dunnage (pads for under the outriggers) down yourself, maybe three stacks of two by sixes, and it still all sinks into the mud. Then you just get totally muddy. It makes the whole job harder. You’re more tired by the end of the day. On a sunny day it’s awesome. You drop your load, take your chains off, and it just goes much quicker.”
Once his truck is loaded, Ed drives from the shop to the worksite. Most of the sites he works at are residential, but other lumber companies might serve both residential and commercial construction sites.
When he arrives, someone is usually there to tell him where they want the load.
“Often, it will be split up between several spots – some in the front and back, on the roof, in the basement. Hopefully you only have to set up once and do it all from there, but sometimes you have to set up two or three times.”
If the job goes smoothly and he has someone to help unhook his chains, Ed can be finished in 45 minutes. When it’s busy, he says he might hit eight different job sites in one day, making for long hours during the summer.
“If it has been an easy day, at the end of the day I’m fine; but on some long days, when I’ve done a lot of work and I’ve been really pushing it, I go home, have a shower and that’s it. I’m done. I just go to bed.”
When Ed’s not driving from site to site, he’s busy running the crane from outside using controls such as push-buttons and levers. Some new trucks have remote controls which, he says, can make the jobs go really quickly.
Working out in the elements can be physically demanding.
“You’ve got to have some fortitude. Standing in the rain and hail hurts and when you have a load up in the air, you can’t just stop and go running for cover. When it’s freezing cold and the rain’s pounding, you have to stand there and watch because it’s your crane and anything could happen.”
The operator needs to be on constant alert. Accidents can happen and so can injuries, especially to your back. Ed says he ‘works smart, not hard’ to protect himself against the unexpected.
The operator is responsible for the crane and the safety of its operation.
“When you show up on a job site, there are a lot of variables you have to look out for. If the ground is rough and muddy, a crane truck can sink – then you’re done. There are also many things to look out for. There are overhead wires, brick boxes and lots more that you have to know is there, even if you don’t see it. You have to be really aware of your surroundings.”
Even when someone tells Ed where they’d like to have the load placed, it’s up to him to decide whether or not it’s practical and safe. The operator needs to set up in the safest spot with the best angles that will keep the truck balanced and stable. This can be challenging depending on the topography of the site, and jobsite supervisors aren’t always going to be aware of how these factors will affect your work.
“Sometimes, there will be nowhere to set up on site and you have to set up on the road, blocking part or all of a lane of traffic. On commercial or bigger sites, there’s always a flag person to direct traffic, but on smaller sites there isn’t. In those situations I put my safety cones out so nobody crashes into my stabilizer while I’m running. I don’t worry about the traffic anymore; if I did I’d always be nervous. I’ve been hit by cars, spat on, had stuff thrown at me and even been physically assaulted. They tell people who ride bicycles to ‘take the room you need’. That’s what I do: I take the room I need.”
Ed feels that people respect him on the job because he’s earned his reputation by not compromising.
“I make myself clear in a very non-confrontational way. I just tell them how it is. They don’t tell me how to do my job and I won’t tell them how to do theirs. I’m not compromising my safety, their safety, or the truck. I get a lot of people requesting me specifically.
“I don’t drink. Most guys who drink and party don’t last long. You’ll see them at all the different companies and once they’ve made their rounds they’re out. If you’re drinking and doing drugs it’s going to show in your work. In this job people can really get hurt.”
According to Ed, the most important qualities an operator needs are diplomacy, strength of character and good judgment.
“I think the person in charge of running the crane and the crane truck should have a strong character and not be easily bullied or intimidated. I’ve seen guys who were intimidated and got into some very dangerous situations; they’ve flipped their trucks and hit overhead wires.”
Getting trained, says Ed, is really up to the operator.
“It might be true that after one day of training you can take the truck out bring it back and set up some chains but that doesn’t mean you’re ready to go out on your own.”
Though some big companies are able to offer training, Ed feels that learning from an experienced operator is the best way.
“When I first learned, the owner of the truck went out with me for a month and he showed me: if you do this, this is what will happen. He taught me how to handle the variables of different sites. He would create situations so he could show me what to do and what not to do. I’ve seen a lot of accidents that happened because the operator didn’t know how to handle a particular situation. Sometimes operators do something they shouldn’t because they’re afraid to lose their job. Would you rather go home with a clean conscience that you didn’t kill anybody or worry about getting fired?”
The most important piece of advice Ed would offer to a person thinking of going into the crane industry is to get the proper training.
“Don’t just settle for a day or two; get an experienced operator to teach you by taking you out with them in their truck. Ask questions. Be willing to learn.”
His second most important piece of advice is what he thinks of as the ‘golden rule’.
“If you don’t feel comfortable and safe doing it, don’t do it.”
Ed gets a lot of satisfaction from his work. He loves the independence and the responsibility of being accountable for his decisions.
“What I like is that I’m my own boss on the road. I call the shots on the job.”
A great day at work makes him feel good at the end of the day.
“The best days mean T-shirt weather, working on a job, or even two or three challenging jobs. I like running the crane – it’s challenging; it’s exciting. You know: big toys for big boys.”