A view from a high seat: What it's like to operate a construction crane
The winds were out of the south-southwest gusting to 23 miles per hour. At 155 feet in the air, tower crane operator Michael Collins struggled against the cross winds while moving a load of lumber.
Collins, 53, of Park Ridge, works at the construction site of the new Zurich American Insurance national headquarters in Schaumburg. He is in one of four tower cranes moving materials that keep the structure moving in the right direction -- up.
Every work day, Collins makes the long climb up to his tower crane cab, counting the 140 steps not on the way up but on the way down.
"I've been as high as 500 feet in the air, so this is pretty nice, as I don't have to climb that far," he said.
In the winter, he says, he makes the climb with purpose, but in the summer he takes time -- "10-15 minutes some days" -- to enjoy his surroundings.
Collins has been a crane operator for 15 years, logging over 35,000 hours working for Concrete Strategies Inc. out of St. Louis. In that time, he has said he has seen it all from his lofty perch, from people doing the dishes with no clothing on to car accidents. "I know who ran the red light," he jokes. Right now his cab has a great view of the Chicago skyline.
The job of a crane operator is to move materials around on the job site, Collins said. As the building goes up, so must other necessary things -- materials, concrete slabs, steel structures, as well as machinery like generators. In short, whatever is too heavy for the workers to move or lift, Collins moves with his crane.
You cannot build a rising structure without tower cranes, Collins says, because they assist in the construction of the building and help to keep the workers safe.
"This is a very dangerous business," he said. "I take my eye off the ball for one second and bad things can happen."
The danger is not so much for the crane operator but for the workers, over whose heads Collins transports loads multiple times a day.
"Nothing is going to fall on me; the crane is not going to fall over, but things happen -- a strap breaks, a rigging breaks, there is almost no way to not swing a load over someone," Collins said.
"The danger is with the guys on the decks; that's who has the really dangerous jobs, not us," he said.
If a mistake happens, there are no do-overs, Collins said.
"It's like a giant video game except there is no reset button."
The cranes are placed in strategic locations so they can reach any part of the building with ease to lift and deliver vital ingredients. The goal is to pour concrete. "That's what gets the structure built."
No matter what, safety is paramount in a job like this.
"(You have to) trust the people you work with," Collins said. "Pay attention to every single detail. So many people make what we do possible, (from) the signal people on the ground to the support staff."
As dangerous as the work seems, it has its rewards, Collins said.
"We are as safe as if we were in our mothers' arms. People don't believe that," he said.
"I know this sounds a little bit corny, but going home at the end of the night, knowing everybody (is) going home with every finger, every toe, everything they came to work with, that is the most satisfying part of the job."
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