Drop it a dog, and a blondie to the left: operating the giant crane on the Wyatt Hall building site

Operating the huge crane that spiked the construction site of Puget Sound’s new academic building took trust, teamwork, a steady hand and the spiritual prowess of a Zen master

By Shawn Carlson and Brenda Pittlsey

Like an exclamation point on the university skyline, a 175-foot construction crane directed attention this past summer and fall to the new academic building rising on the southwest corner of Todd Field. The crane operator is a key figure on any construction site. He forms a tight team with the rigger, the person on the ground who is responsible for loading the hooks and guiding delivery of the materials as the operator flies them from place to place. As Bill Wisham, field superintendent for contractor Sellen Construction, notes, it is crucial for the crane operator and the rigger to be skilled professionals. Anything less and "someone could be killed in a heartbeat."

Shawn Carlson, 32, worked on the university project. It was his first job as an crane operator, but it was a job he had trained for since age 5.

"My dad was a crane operator for 35 years. He retired in January, but he’s well known in the construction business. He was respected as ‘the guy.’ He’s got the rep, and I’ve got to continue it. I feel good about that.

"I climbed up [the ladder to the top of the crane] the first time when I was 5. I was too small to go all the way because in those days the rungs got wider apart about halfway up, and I couldn’t reach the next step. But I’d come up with my dad over the years, and I got some seat time. That’s how I learned. I also took a course through the union, but it came naturally after being behind my dad all those years. "This job takes a lot out of you. The most surprising thing is how stressful it is. Most people don’t realize that. It takes a lot of inner energy to make this equipment do what it needs to do. The first three weeks I was up here, I had to go home every night, have a Coke, and just watch TV for a while, like my dad used to do. When I was a kid, I couldn’t figure out why he’d always come home and take a nap. But you have to unwind. It gets pretty stressful sometimes."

The 145-foot ladder leading to the operator’s cab at the top of the crane goes straight up. It’s not for the fainthearted. Climbing it is a cardio and strength workout. Platforms located at 20-foot intervals allow the climber to take a break, but if you stop you might notice how high you are off the ground. There is no safety net. Later, the sharp scent of metal clings to your clothes for hours.

"The hardest part is making sure the loads come safely to where the guys are. Some guys don’t make it as operators because they’re reckless. They’ll bring in a load and just slap it in. They get a bad reputation and the companies won’t hire them. But my dad taught me to ‘control the load before you bring it down.’

"It takes a lot of concentration. You can’t brake too fast, for example, or the hook will start swinging, and it’s tough to get it to stop. And when it’s windy out—that’s the most stressful time—the guys might ask me to bring a load over ‘a little bit.’ But the wind blows into my boom, and I have to be in third or fourth gear to get it over there. I have to get it to go and stop, go and stop, to move it that ‘little bit.’

"At first, everyone I’m working with knew I was green, so they were watching me. But you earn your reputation by going nice and easy and slow—nice and safe. That’s what they’re looking for. By doing that, I’m gaining their trust in letting me fly this stuff over their heads."

The crackle of the radio is a crane operator’s constant companion. The rigger is the usual voice on the other end. The rigger and the operator speak in a coded language that is both consistent from job to job and personalized between the two people doing the work. Verbal communication is all-important. When the rigger asks the operator to "trolley down a dog," the operator better know what that means.

"You have to trust your rigger, especially when you can’t see the loads. He guides me in to exactly where I need to be. I have to trust him on what I’m picking up and how much it weighs.

"When Buck (the rigger on the university job) says to ‘trolley down a dog’ he means a unit of measurement. He wants the hoist lowered about 6 inches. That’s the dog. He might say one dog, two dogs, three dogs. One time he pulled out a ‘Chihuahua.’ Then it was a ‘Saint Bernard’ one day. A whisker and a hair are the same thing. A blondie is a hair. A hair also is about 6 inches. A bump is a little more than a hair, about a foot. Buck’ll say 20 different words that mean the same thing. Sometimes he’ll use the actual footage, too, especially if I’m in a blind spot. He’ll say ‘come down 3 feet.’

"I use two levers [at hip level on either side of the driver’s seat] to operate the crane. The one on the right is the hoist, the one on the left is the trolley and swing. The brake is a variable foot brake. You have to keep constant pressure on the right lever because it has a dead-man mechanism built in; if I take away the hand pressure, the crane stops.

"But operating the crane takes more than just the levers. You’ve got to be the crane. You sit up here and use your whole body. It’s like being on a boat. I can feel in my body where my boom is when I swing it. Your body tells you where the load is and how you need to move it. You just relax ... well, you don’t really relax, because you’re tense holding the controls ... and float with it."

The crane cab is a cramped box fitted into the L-shaped angle where the boom connects to the tower. You enter through a trapdoor in the ceiling. There’s a heater to keep the windows from fogging up, but no air conditioning except the open window. Though visual acuity is essential to the operator’s job, the windows do not have wipers. Many of the interior components are made of plastic to protect the operator from electric shock in a lightning strike. There’s a shelf for stowing snacks, magazines, and a pair of binoculars, but no other amenities.

"Every morning I do my walk-around to check the equipment. There are about 15 things to check every day: I check the handrail and signs to make sure they haven’t come loose; I check my brake system to make sure it’s intact; I bring the trolley in and the hoist up to make sure they have all the stops. You feel better knowing that, yeah, everything’s in place, everything’s tight. You feel safer. You can feel comfortable going about your day’s work.

"Dad once found one of the keepers had come off a trolley wheel and the wheel was hanging out by a couple of inches. If that thing had fallen off, it could have hurt someone real bad. So it’s pretty important to check your equipment.

"The most common question I’ve gotten since taking this job is ‘where do you go to the bathroom?’ I have a jug. I carry it down and empty it once a week. I’m usually up here all day. I’m 6’4", so this little cab is pretty small. I stretch a lot in here and out [on the catwalk above the cab].

"The second most common question is how do I handle the height and the motion of the crane. Once in a while, the crane really gets moving. It doesn’t bother me, but some people can’t stand it. I’m not scared of heights—the fear is something you do to yourself—and I just don’t go there.

"I like this job. It’s steady work, and it sure beats being out in the rain. I’m up here by myself. There’s no one bossing me. Everyone respects me, because I’ve got the tool they need. And it’s neat, having that respect."