A view from a high seat: What it's like to operate a construction crane

  • Keeping his "eye on the ball" at all times and paying close attention to detail -- so all workers on the ground remain safe while he has a load on his crane -- is the most important part of Michael Collins' job, he says. Four tower cranes work the construction site at the new location of Zurich Insurance North America headquarters in Schaumburg. Collins, of Park Ridge, works in the third highest tower crane on site, 155 feet in the air. The highest measures in at 280 feet.

    Keeping his "eye on the ball" at all times and paying close attention to detail -- so all workers on the ground remain safe while he has a load on his crane -- is the most important part of Michael Collins' job, he says. Four tower cranes work the construction site at the new location of Zurich Insurance North America headquarters in Schaumburg. Collins, of Park Ridge, works in the third highest tower crane on site, 155 feet in the air. The highest measures in at 280 feet. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Collins descends the 140 stairs at the end of the day.

    Collins descends the 140 stairs at the end of the day.

  • This is the view out of tower crane operator Michael Collins' window as he lifts materials for the parking deck garage while workers below move the materials into place.

    This is the view out of tower crane operator Michael Collins' window as he lifts materials for the parking deck garage while workers below move the materials into place. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Four tower cranes work the construction site at the new location of Zurich Insurance North America Headquarters in Schaumburg. Michael Collins works in the third highest tower crane on site with a height of 155 feet in the air, with the highest measuring in at 280 feet.

    Four tower cranes work the construction site at the new location of Zurich Insurance North America Headquarters in Schaumburg. Michael Collins works in the third highest tower crane on site with a height of 155 feet in the air, with the highest measuring in at 280 feet. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • The jibs, which are the projecting arms of the crane, can cross paths with each other, so each crane operator has to keep in contact with the other operators as they move them.

    The jibs, which are the projecting arms of the crane, can cross paths with each other, so each crane operator has to keep in contact with the other operators as they move them. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Michael Collins inspects the lifting clamps every morning before he climbs the tower crane. His goal is to protect the men on the ground as he lifts and lowers thousands of pounds of materials above them during each work day.

    Michael Collins inspects the lifting clamps every morning before he climbs the tower crane. His goal is to protect the men on the ground as he lifts and lowers thousands of pounds of materials above them during each work day. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Collins ascends the 140-stair, 155-foot tower crane at the site of the new Zurich American Insurance headquarters in Schaumburg.

    Collins ascends the 140-stair, 155-foot tower crane at the site of the new Zurich American Insurance headquarters in Schaumburg. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Walking out on the machinery arm of the tower crane, Michael Collins checks to make sure all is functioning correctly. He has a partner with him who is called an oiler, whose job is to learn as an apprentice, to maintain the crane and assist the operator, even get him lunch if needed.

    Walking out on the machinery arm of the tower crane, Michael Collins checks to make sure all is functioning correctly. He has a partner with him who is called an oiler, whose job is to learn as an apprentice, to maintain the crane and assist the operator, even get him lunch if needed. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Michael Collins sits in the cab of a tower crane on a Schaumburg construction site, moving materials carefully over workers 155 feet below. "It's like a giant video game except there is no reset button," he says.

    Michael Collins sits in the cab of a tower crane on a Schaumburg construction site, moving materials carefully over workers 155 feet below. "It's like a giant video game except there is no reset button," he says. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 7/11/2015 8:19 AM

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.

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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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