Experienced Lifters Wanted

By Greg Sitek | September 28, 2010

Although simulators, videos and manuals will let you gain knowledge and practice, actual experience doesn't start counting until you make your first pick.

If you have ever watched a professional weight lifter get ready to execute a particularly heavy lift, you will have noticed that the lifter goes through a ritual before the lift is attempted. Once the lifter has grabbed the bar and started the lifting movement, he is committed to completing it. Any mistakes can result in serious injury to the lifter, the spotters as well as the spectators.

Before any serious weight lifter ever attempts heavy lifts they will have spent years in training to get ready, and the training never stops. They know what they can and can't do. They know their bodies and all its weaknesses; the weights they are handling; the equipment that's involved; and the location where they are executing the lifts. They carefully check everything before they attempt the heavy lift. Why? Because they know — one slip and they may never be able to lift again.

Operating a crane isn't a whole lot different. The crane, the machine, the piece of equipment becomes an extension of the operator. It does what the operator wants it to do.

Maybe all crane operators should spend a few months in the gym learning to lift heavy weights. It might help create a better appreciation and understanding of what the machine has to do if they can experience it firsthand.

There have been several deadly crane accidents around the country this year, including one in Houston that killed four workers and injured seven others. Crane-related deaths have also occurred in New York, Miami, Las Vegas, and again in Houston. These are the major incidents that have made the national press. There are dozens of others that have not received news coverage.

An Associated Press analysis in June found that cities and states have wildly varying rules governing construction cranes. For example, cranes in Oklahoma fall under OSHA regulations but operate without any state oversight, state Labor Commissioner Lloyd Fields said. He said Oklahoma may join other states considering improved regulatory oversight of cranes. Oklahoma is among 35 states that do not require crane operators to be licensed.

Groups like the Specialized Carriers & Rigging Association are for certification, standards and better regulations covering the use, operation and setup of cranes. Other industry groups like the Association of Equipment Manufacturers support this type of effort and have produced a Crane Safety Manual For User, Operators and Maintenance Personnel.

All construction equipment needs to be operated carefully and safely. Cranes and any machine that is lifting, moving and placing objects or materials require special care and consideration. Crane safety needs to start long before you hit the job site. At the top of the list, operators must be safety conscious, trained, experienced and have full knowledge of the machine they will be operating.

One of the easiest things to do is ignore the manufacturer's operator manual. "It's all the same ...," "I've read dozens like 'em." This could be a fact but it's still essential to read and understand the manual, the load rating charts, maintenance requirements, and information decals. Before beginning operation, thoroughly inspect the machine for signs of wear, stress, abuse, or the like. The machine needs to be clean and free of debris, obstacles or any obstruction.

Wear proper clothing including required protective items such as hardhat, safety glasses, reflective clothing, safety shoes, ear or hearing protection, and the like. Make sure it fits and is worn correctly. The job site is not the place to be making a "fashion statement" by wearing hats backwards, shoes unlaced or pants dragging on the ground.

Before cranking the machine up, make sure all protective guards or panels are in place, all vandal guards are removed, and that all safety devices are in place and working correctly.

Know the job site and how your crane will be situated on it. You need to know the location of all utilities on or near the site; the list includes underground as well as overhead lines.

Walk-around inspections are essential. You should follow the steps outlined in the operator's manual looking for the obvious missing parts, lights, nuts, bolts, hardware, and the like. You also need to train yourself to look for the not-so-obvious leaks, cracks, and bulging or swollen hoses. As you're doing this check covers, doors, panels, caps, drain cocks, and other types of fill or drain devices.

Check the air intake system. If the machine is equipped with an air restriction indicator, ascertain that the filter can handle another day's work and that the system is leak free.

Tires or track — check the air pressure in the tires and the tension on the track. Inspect the wire rope and all pulleys, drums, winches, and related equipment. Since you'll be supporting a load with these things, you will want to make certain that they are in excellent condition.

Load Rating Charts

Do not operate a crane without the proper manufacturer's load rating charts. Never use a substitute, like a photocopy of a chart or sales brochure, as a load rating chart. The machine you are using may be fitted with special equipment that requires a special or custom chart. Know and never exceed the crane manufacturer's load ratings. Tipping the crane to determine its capacity is extremely dangerous and literally overloads the crane. Use only the crane manufacturer's counterweight. Check for warning tags or specific instructions. Never exceed boom or boom and jib combination lengths published on the crane manufacturer's load rating chart.

Hand Signals

A legible chart depicting and explaining the system of signals used should be conspicuously located on the outside of the operator's cab. A single individual, who knows and understands the signals, should be designated to communicate with the operator unless an effective signaling or control device is provided for the operator for his or her safe direction of the operation.

Some Obvious Safety Reminders

We are assuming the crane being used, no matter what type — All Terrain, Rough Terrain, Truck Mounted, Lattice Boom truck, or crawler mounted, etc. — is assembled, ready for operation and has been transported to the lift zone. Let's face it: If the crane isn't properly rigged and assembled, you definitely don't want to be operating it. Many of the larger cranes require some on-site assembly due to transportation size and weight restrictions. This type of assembly needs to be executed with the greatest care and caution to insure not only proper assembly but also to maintain the integrity of the components.

On The Level

The level of a crane is critical to every lift. All cranes must be leveled according to the manufacturer's specifications. If the machine is out-of-level, the load will cause side loads on the boom and the stability and structural integrity of the machine will be adversely affected.

Since outriggers provide greater stability than tires, machines with outriggers should have the outrigger beams extended and set for lifting operations; consult with the manufacturer's instructions for on-rubber operation.

When using outriggers, set the outrigger's beams to their fully extended position, always extending the beams equally. When using outriggers, be sure all tires are clear of the ground and level the machine in all directions, as specified by the manufacturer.

  • If the machine is equipped with a load weighing or load limiting device, make sure the device settings match the machine configuration you are using and it is turned on and working.
  • Set the outriggers to their fully extended position, unless the load rating chart for your crane permits partial outrigger extension. Partial outrigger extension is not allowed on all cranes.
  • Make sure the outrigger pads are securely fastened to the outrigger beams when beams are in use.
  • If blocking must be built up (cribbed) to obtain height to level a machine, make sure it is stable, covers sufficient ground, and won't topple, collapse or sink into the ground when the machine is swung.
  • Never block under outrigger beams inside the outrigger pads, since this reduces stability of the machine.
  • Recheck outrigger pads between lifts and reset them if necessary. Machines can tip over when swung over an outrigger not properly set.
  • The supporting surface under each outrigger pad must always be level and solid enough to support the loads that are being lifted.

To level a machine working on crawlers or on tires, the ground must be leveled or blocking must be used. Check the level of the machine in all directions before lifting. Don't lift if it's out of level of the machine exceeds the manufacturer's limits. Check the level of the machine frequently during operation and relevel when necessary.

Before ...

...moving and immediately after starting the engines:

  • Check all gauges and indicators.
  • Be sure the area is safe for operating with the operating area properly barricaded and free of any obstructions.
  • Operate the controls to see if they are operating properly and if they have a different feel.
  • Listen for unusual noises or sounds.
  • Test the engine speed control.
  • Record and report any problems. Do not operate the machine until any and all problems have been corrected and cleared by qualified maintenance staff.
  • Make sure all operator aids and limiters are installed and operating properly.
  • Do not read, drink or eat while operating the crane.
  • Do not operate the machine while under the influence of alcohol, drugs or medication that could impair your thinking, reflexes or ability to operate safely.
  • Keep your eye on the load or signal person.
  • Focus on what you are doing. If you must turn your attention to something else, stop the operation.

Know the operating range of the machine. Be sure the attachment, hook or load doesn't catch on anything when swinging, raising or lowering the boom or load.

Smooth and easy needs to be the way you swing, brake, raise or lower the boom or load. Unnecessarily fast movements can cause accidents. And don't forget to check to be sure everyone is clear of the area before you start any movement. Never swing or position a hook or load over personnel, vehicles or operating equipment.


There is no substitute for experience, especially for a crane operator. You can develop the skill and knowledge that will enable you to handle a wide variety of situations that can and do happen when handling loads through actual in-the-seat experience. There are manuals and video media, and today there are simulators that can provide the information and practice that can help get you ready to start learning how to be a crane operator. Although simulators, videos and manuals will let you gain knowledge and practice, actual experience doesn't start counting until you make your first pick.

Note: A complete set of standard hand signal illustrations is available in the above noted Crane Operator Safety Manual through AEM at http://shop.aem.org/Default.aspx.