AABP Award 728x90

Aerial performance


We’ve all glanced up a time or two as we’ve stopped at a traffic light near one of the downtown construction projects and wondered, “What’s it like to work up in that crane?”

Well, “it’s kind of like sitting in a fishing boat all day, because you’re swaying all the time,” said Kenneth “Kenny” Pratt, who operates a 300-ton tower crane for Neumann Brothers Inc. “It’s a good job.”

Working from the phone-booth-size compartment known as the “house” atop the 137-foot tower, Pratt knows he’s got a big one on the end of his 230-foot-long boom when the whole rig bends forward, himself included. There’s even a scale on board to weigh the loads he’s picking up, which can range from 7,500 pounds near the tip of the boom to 26,500 pounds closest to the tower.

Six days a week, Pratt arrives at the work site at Seventh and Mulberry streets at 6:30 a.m. After checking his “rig” and a 10-minute climb straight up, he takes a seat and takes hold of the twin joysticks he uses to maneuver the crane. He won’t leave his perch until he climbs back down at 3:30 that afternoon. Pratt will spend each workday in the air until the two parking garages being built for EMC Insurance Cos. are completed in March 2006.

Anchored by 45-foot pilings driven down to the bedrock and bolted onto a six-foot-thick, living-room-sized concrete pad, the tower crane is both the focal point and heavy lifter in what amounts to a daily choreography, said Marshall Linn, president and CEO of Neumann Brothers, the project’s general contractor.

“When the job really gets going, Kenny could be up there 10 hours a day,” Linn said. “Everyone’s sequenced in a dance. The first thing in the morning they’ll be pouring some concrete, then he goes to a sequence of moving some formwork, then he might go to a sequence of putting rebar up, then he might be going back to forms. It’s all sequenced as to who does what when, so that you don’t have any people standing around the job site.”

Using a walkie-talkie, Pratt communicates with one person at a time on the ground. Or, if it’s a clear day, he sometimes will use hand signals.

The knowledge of both the operator and the workers guiding him on the ground are important, Linn said, “because everybody wants that hook; everybody wants that hook right now. You’ve got to have enough wherewithal to say, ‘No, it’s not your turn, that’s out of the sequence.’”

Keeping experienced operators such as Pratt, who has been with the company six out of his 20 years in construction, is vital, Linn said.

“They work on several different work sites during the year. The men who work with them have to have the confidence in them, that they know what they’re going to do,” he said. “If you’re switching operators constantly, that confidence is not there. It doesn’t flow as well, people are more apprehensive.”

The median wage for a crane/tower operator is about $37,000 per year, according to Salary.com.

“It’s a common-sense job,” said Pratt, who broke into crane work 2 1/2 years ago with a smaller rig, and began operating the tower crane when it was assembled on the job site in December. “You have to pay attention to everybody on the ground,” noting that it’s bad form to swing multi-ton pieces of concrete directly over people’s heads. “It’s a lot of common sense, and the skill does help, if you’re good with your hands.”

Using the joysticks, Pratt controls the swing and the trolley that moves the pulleys along the length of the boom with his left hand, and the load line with his right hand.

He also has to listen well, both to each person who’s directing him from the ground, as well as to the cues the machinery is giving him.

“You have to listen to that machine, because you can hear the brakes set, you can hear the swing motors, you can even hear the load line when you kick that in,” he said.

The downsides of the job? It’s definitely not for anyone who has a problem with heights. And the operator has to be “self-contained” in his workspace, taking a container with him for when nature calls.

“You’ve got to train your body to do what you have to do,” Pratt said. “They can’t afford for me to go up there and come back down, because that would waste 45 minutes to an hour.”

It costs Neumann Brothers $12,500 per month to lease the machine — or about $1 per minute of work time — and that’s not counting the expense of anchoring it or hauling it back and forth to the crane company in Minnesota.

“You stay busy, the day goes good,” Pratt said, whose lunch break includes an excellent view. “I stay busy pretty much all day, which really makes the day go by fast.”

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