Frank has been operating tower cranes for 29 years. He works on high-rise construction sites as a ‘producer’, meaning he works during the busiest phases of construction when schedules are tight and the building process is in full swing. When a job winds down, Frank moves to another site and a ‘closer’ takes his place.
He got started with tower cranes when his family met with extraordinary financial demands.
“I married young and had three kids by the time I was 25. One of my children was disabled and even with help from others, expenses were high. At the time I worked in steel fabrication with little opportunity for increasing my income, so I trained as a tower crane operator. I wanted to earn more money and worked every hour they threw at me.”
The days are long – often 12-14 hours – but the money is good and Frank has found a lot to love about his job: the variety, the fast pace and the independence. And there are the magnificent views from high above the city in the crane.
“That’s the beauty of being a tower crane operator; you never miss a sunrise.”
Frank gets up at 4:45 am so that he can leave for work by 5:15. On the commute, he listens to the news and pays specific attention to the weather.
“Tower cranes are directly affected by the weather, especially the wind, so that’s probably the first thing I’m paying attention to when I wake up in the morning. I’m usually the first person to arrive at the site. When I get there I put my gear on, clock in, and wait for the other guys I’m working with. We discuss what happened the day before, what didn’t work so well, what to try today.”
On good days everything runs smoothly.
“All construction sites are schedule-driven, but high-rise sites are even more so because they try to achieve a floor a week. A small glitch – something breaking down for an hour – can throw the whole schedule off for a week.”
As he climbs up the crane, he does a routine inspection. He looks at critical structural areas, bolts and connections, checks for damage and makes sure the brakes, drives and moving parts are all working properly. When he settles into the cab, he looks out over the site noting changes and work that needs to be done. He also has incredible views of the whole city.
“When you’re downtown you can see the whole city coming to life.”
Frank works alone in the cab all day long. Other than meeting other workers at the beginning and end of the day, his only contact is by phone or radio.
“A lot of people don’t like that isolation factor. If people leave tower cranes, it’s often because they like to do more physical work or because they don’t like being cramped into something the size of a telephone booth for 10-14 hours a day.”
There’s no bathroom up there in the cab.
“The bathroom issue doesn’t have to be a problem. I recently trained a young woman in her twenties. She is physically fit, so she doesn’t mind climbing down a couple of times a day. There’s nothing to stop a woman from going into this trade.”
The pace of the work is very demanding.
“When the job is in full production, you have no time. Your hands are on the sticks for the most part and you don’t get a break. As soon as you’re finished with one person, somebody else is waiting for your crane.”
Frank loves the variety of tower crane work compared to other types of cranes. On a typical day, he performs hundreds of lifts, unloads trucks, pours concrete and moves equipment and materials around the site. He’s involved in most aspects of the building process and has a unique perspective on the whole site.
“A lot of operators get the ‘God attitude’ because they’re above everyone, looking down on the job site. Because of this, they might start trying to call the shots on the worksite, thinking they’re superior because they can see everything. We all go through it but we have to remember that at the very least, this is a two person job. It’s only possible if you have your rigger or your partner down on the ground.”
Safety is Frank’s number one responsibility and his top priority.
“Everything I do is related to safety. For every load I pick up, I have to select the safest route for it.” He’s constantly looking around at all the other equipment and people on the site. The most challenging thing for him is trying to predict human behaviour.”
“I might see a hazard because I am 400 feet in the air, but other people might not see it or ignore it and do something they’re not supposed to do. After a while you get good at reading people’s body language and figuring out what they’ll do next.”
But accidents can happen. He was involved in a fatality incident about 25 years ago.
“It wasn’t my fault, but you never forget those things. If you even so much as pinch a person’s finger, you don’t feel good about it. If you’re not operating safely, the crew doesn’t trust you. You can tell if you approach with a load and everyone walks away. They have to have confidence in whoever’s up there and there’s nothing worse than having a crew member refuse to work with you because you’re unsafe.”
“There are only two excuses for not being at work when you’re a tower crane operator. You’re either in jail or you’re dead.”
New operators usually last for about six or seven years before they quit. The long hours, isolation, lack of physical activity and cramped spaces eventually get to them. The other big factor is the impact such long days can have on their personal lives. Even keeping up a hobby can be difficult.
“Say you want to take a photography course. If it’s eight evenings, you’re going to miss half of them, so it’s hard to get yourself involved in things like that.”
Raising a family can be very challenging.
“My wife used to drive to the job site, put out a picnic on the lawn in front and I’d climb down at lunch time. That’s when I’d see my kids. They were still asleep when I left in the morning and they had already gone to bed when I got home at night.”
On the job, he feels that he is trusted and respected by other workers, but there is occasional friction.
“Sometimes people get the impression that because you are up there in the cab, sitting with a heater in the cold weather, you’re not actually doing any work. They can’t see what you’re doing and they might harass you a bit. But we make other people’s jobs easier. We’re here to provide a service and we do it for seventeen different trades.”
“It’s an important job. You participate in almost every facet of the construction process. If you’re a good operator and you treat people fairly, you’re going to get that respect in return. Respect breeds respect. It’s a nice job that way.”
In Frank’s opinion, some of the most important personality traits for a tower crane operator are adaptability, diplomacy and being able to stay cool under stress.
“The environment changes from minute to minute. You really need to be able to roll with the punches up there. The supervisors have a million things to think about and they might not see that your issues are important. You have to present your concerns in a reasonable, adult way.”
“There have been times when I’ve completely blown up and overreacted; it happens and it takes some work to try to rein yourself in. Everyone handles stress differently. I’ve seen operators climb down and get into face-to-face arguments. Find a better way to deal with it.”
The best way to learn the skills? Experience. Although more accessible formal training is being planned, courses are hard to come by and employers don’t always have the time and resources to give operators all the training they need. Frank advises people that are interested in joining the industry to start out in construction. Learn the building processes, and work with an experienced rigger.
“Learn the rigging job and do it for three or four months minimum. It’s essential to learn what it’s like to work with a crane, from the ground, and then get up into that seat. Offer to help with maintenance, inspections or whatever. Get yourself exposed to it. Nothing replaces on-the-job experience.”
Frank says that once people get trained and build confidence, they tend to stay in the trade. The earning potential is a very important factor.
“It’s a $100-125,000 a year job – from the day you start! And it requires very little formal training. You might have to take some courses, but it’s not like four years of university.”
The most important thing is to be aware of the impact this career will have on your health and your personal life. It’s crucial to achieve some balance by keeping up your social life, interests and hobbies.
“You need to protect yourself from injuries on the job. Common problems include neck and back pain caused by repetitive motion. It is also important to wear hearing protection. The crane produces noise. It is not quiet and peaceful up in the cab.”
“Eat well, get enough rest and exercise to help stay in good physical condition and prevent the weight gain that can accompany the job. Diet plays a huge role in your ability to stay alert all day. Eating the wrong foods can make you tired, fat and irritable. It’s easy to slip into bad habits. It took me years to realize that when my body’s stiff and sore, I need to get up and stretch. Now I do that; go out and do a brief inspection or fix something. Two or three minutes then I’m back in the cab, feeling refreshed.”
“At the end of the day, you don’t need a pint of beer to unwind. Take a walk or a bike ride, go to the pool and sit in the steam room or the hot tub. If people have good eating, sleeping, and living skills before they become a crane operator, they’ll usually maintain them as they go on.”
What’s Frank’s advice to prospective operators?
“Go for it!”