By Richard Bermack, Contributing Writer and Photographer
Pile drivers install huge iron struts to shore up the building foundations, and iron workers fasten together the iron beams that make up the building’s skeleton. Operating engineers drive the cranes that pick up those 10 to 20-ton objects and hoist them into place. Swinging the crane in rhythm and in sync with the workers so that the iron is right there at the precise place and moment they need it is half the fun. And not only do they raise the iron, they run and maintain the man-lifts that transport the workers up and down the structure. It’s all about being part of a team and watching the building grow.
On the Job Site visited with Operating Engineers Local 3 members at the Transbay Terminal as they hung the iron and watched as the structure of the building rose above the ground.
Operating Engineers Local 3 represents the workers at the Transbay site working for Balfour Beatty Infrastructure Inc, Shimmick Construction, Skanska USA, and Anvil Builders. In addition to the crane operators, man-lift operators and apprentices featured in this story, they also represent surveyors and inspectors.
The surveyors and inspectors will be featured in an upcoming story.
–Voices From the Union–
Apprentice, Oiler Shimmick Construction
I’m learning a lot from the crane operator Paul. He’s showing me little tricks with the crane. The trick is small movements, small taps with the joystick. If you swing too hard the load will be wobbly and hard to catch. Working with the ironworkers you have to be precise. You can’t be swinging the hook around back and forth. So Paul is teaching me just to go slow and match their pace. It’s a little hard with the big crane. It’s small taps on the joystick or the hook will start swinging. I’m getting it.
I’m new to being an oiler. You get to learn the parts of the crane, how it works, and what to look for around your surroundings to make sure the ground around the crane is secure.
This is my first iron job and it is pretty interesting. The structure of the building is fascinating. It’s a lot of steel to put in place.
I’ve always wanted to be a crane operator. It’s not something that a lot of people know how to do. They don’t want to take all the responsibility. I was a laborer before. It took me a year-and-a-half to get in the operating engineers’ apprenticeship program.
Crane Operator, Skanska USA
Running a crane is a lot of responsibility. You get a bird’s eye view of the whole job from start to finish. Today we’re working with the structural ironworkers, hoisting structural steel. We get the iron off the truck and into the air. It’s very fast paced working with ironworkers. They are a crane-oriented craft, so they know what they’re doing and they do it well. They keep me on my toes. It’s really a blessing to be able to trust the person at the end of your hook.
It takes a while to work out the rhythm, but once you get it, everyone’s working together in harmony. You’re not even thinking about it, and the next thing you know, you’ve built a building. It’s just one piece of the puzzle at a time, and it is a heck of a puzzle.
The landscape changes a little bit every day. You get to watch the actual structure come out of the ground. It’s very pleasing.
My favorite thing is the people. I come from a trade union family and these are the people I grew up with, carpenters, ironworkers, pile drivers, and pipe fitters. We’re a family here. During the week I see the guys in my crew more than my actual family at home. We’re working 60 hours a week.
My favorite project was the Benicia-Martinez bridge. I did my apprenticeship there. But this is really going to be the one to hang my hat on.
Man Lift Operator, Anvil Builders
It’s interesting trying to keep all the people happy throughout the day. The crews from different trades don’t always realize that there are people on the other levels that need to get picked-up too. That can get a little stressful.
It’s a lot of up and down. Sometimes guys will press the button and then walk away without saying where they are. And I’m like, “What floor are you on?” When you don’t hear from them, you have to scan the floors and do your best to find them.
You just try to keep a positive conversation going, figure out how to appeal to everyone’s different moods, and keep in a good mood yourself.
I never expected to be an elevator guy. I just fell into it. I was hired on the Transbay job as a mechanic, and then they wanted a mechanic as an operator. It worked out well, but I do miss “mechanicing.” But I still get to wrench on stuff.
One thing, it got me over my fear of heights. At 2 AM one morning I had to construct the mast for the lift by climbing 125 feet and putting one section on top of the other with the crane’s headache ball ahead of me. I’m thinking, “What am I doing here?” But once it was over I thought, “Well, it wasn’t that bad.”
Sometimes you’ll work 12 or 14 hours, and then you have to do your maintenance, repairs and adjustments, and that definitely makes for long days. But it’s not as stressful as some of the fires you have to put out working on heavy equipment. If one of the cranes goes down it can affect the whole job, and that stresses everyone else out.
On this job you’re trying to keep a mass of people happy. As a mechanic you just need to keep the foreman happy.
Crane Operator, Shimmick Construction
I’m running a 21-ton Grove RT, flying rebar and lumber from ground level to up here on the roof top, where the park is going to be. I saw the computer renderings of the roof top park, and it looks pretty crazy. I’m excited to be part of it.
I love construction, working with the people and the equipment and being outdoors. Dealing with the weather keeps me entertained. I was working in Phoenix, and I hated the summers out there. You had to work a lot of nights. You have to be a lot more slow and steady at night. You’re working around a lot of tired people and you have a lot of blind spots from the lights shining in your face. I’m glad to be out here.
Safety is my main thing. The trick to being safe is always being aware of your surroundings. We hold safety meetings in the morning to talk about what to expect during the day.
Crane Operator, Balfour Beatty Infrastructure Inc.
We’re removing one level of shoring and moving it up to the next level. Each piece weighs about 40 to 50 thousand pounds. I’m using a 275-ton Triple-Nine Manitowoc with a 180-foot boom. It’s not so bad with a big crane like this. The bigger the crane, the easier they are to run.
The main thing to watch out for is to not crush anyone. If the weight’s wrong or you make a wrong movement by even one foot, somebody can get it. I’ve been working cranes for 20 years. We have a pretty good crew. The pile butts are good to work with. You just get into their mode and it’s go, go, go, just a lot of repetition.
This will be one of my most memorable projects. I’ve been here three years. It’s pretty exciting to see it rising up from the ground now.
Apprentice, Balfour Beatty Infrastructure Inc.
I get to work with big, heavy machinery. I couldn’t ask for more. With the Triple-Nine, it’s all booming up and swinging in place.
I started working on this job at the very beginning, digging up the mud to put in the shoring. Then I worked on the trestle deck. Working with the pile drivers, you really feel like you’re part of a team. It’s like being in a club.
I was in construction doing framing before this. Then I did a little work for my mom’s best friend’s husband, and he got me into the trade. I didn’t even know about the union until he got me into it. It’s been great. I’m treated good, and I get to work hard and make a good living. That’s what counts.
Man Lift Operator, Anvil Builders
It’s fun. You have to get along with everyone. You respect the other guys and they respect you.
I started running the man-lift when I was 55 years old and now I’m 65. I was a mechanic before that, but you start getting old and this is a little easier. You don’t have to lift as much heavy stuff and crawl underneath things. When you get older you need something a little bit easier.
I started out as an automotive mechanic and then went to school and learned heavy equipment mechanics. I’m just happy to be a member of Local 3. After 20 years, I’m just about ready to retire.
Apprentice Oiler, Skanska USA
Today I’m working on a Liebherr, LR 1300. With the newer machines like this one, you don’t get too greasy or too messy. They have their own greasing mechanism, so you don’t have to grease too much.
The computer on it is pretty simple. You get to know it fairly quickly. But there is still a lot of stuff to learn.
I want to be a crane operator, that’s my goal. But you have to walk before you can run, and being an oiler you get to learn how the crane works.
The last crane I worked on with Nick was a friction rig, a Manitowoc 4100, a free fall crane. I liked it a little better, because as Nick would say, “If it’s not leaking, you’re out of oil.” I liked that you’re always taking care of it. With these new cranes you grease a few things here and there and you’re done. I like the old ones better, as you’re always doing something with them. I like doing things.
I was a crane operator in the Army and applied for the apprenticeship program in 2007, but the whole recession hit, and they didn’t call me until 2014.
In the Army I was a 22-year-old kid dealing with millions of dollars of equipment. You had four weeks of training and jumped into a crane. They would say, “Go pick that up.” You didn’t know the weight, and as long as the crane felt light you would pick it up. Here you have a five-year apprenticeship. It’s a lot safer. I personally never flipped anything over in the Army, but I saw it happen. It was definitely an experience.