Beware the Iron Jockeys

Beware the Iron Jockeys

September 16, 2011

I admire equipment operators. I often tell the story of how I spent 15 minutes in the cab of a JCB backhoe loader under the tutelage of legendary operator Donny Wild.

A highlight of many product-introduction events I attend is the machine demonstation, when one of the manufacturer’s top operators puts the new machine through its paces. It’s one thing to impress a bunch of media types, but the customers in the audience enjoy the show almost as much.

We are also fortunate to have a relationship with the Apprenticeship and Skill Improvement Program at Local 150 of the International Operating Engineers. As we do our Hands-on Earthmoving reports, the operator-trainers display great expertise and machine knowledge.

These are equipment pros, operators who understand not only how to use a machine to accomplish a task, but also the limits to which the machine can be pushed. They also understand what not to do.

Not so the case with other operators. They fancy themselves experts, but I like to call them Iron Jockeys because they look at a machine as something to conquer and push to do things they aren’t meant to do. I ran into one of these jockeys when I had a 50-foot oak tree removed.

He wanted to save an 16-foot section of trunk in order to replace the 20-year-old planks on the floor his equipment trailer, which he used to cart around the stump grinder and a skid steer loader. I questioned the machine’s ability to lift and carry said trunk to be placed on the trailer parked nearby.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “If I have to, I’ll chain a log to the back as a counterweight.”

The story then shifts from bravado to foolishness. His partner stood on the opposite side of the trailer, preparing to strap down the log once it was loaded. He had a steel block of some sort that attached to the side to keep the log from rolling. But as the skid steer positioned the log and started to tip down the front of the forks, the block wasn’t inserted and the helper was standing in the path of the log. I expressed some concern that he was in the log’s path, should it roll off, and the response: “You think we haven’t done this before?”

The story ended well, and I was happy to see them drive away. 

But I was left wondering why we don’t hear more stories about equipment operators injuring themselves or others. For every well-trained and safety-conscious operator, how many Iron Jockeys are out there? Do they understand the power at their fingertips and how quickly something can go wrong? Or does machismo overrule precaution?