State College

Crane operators take the regular work day to new heights

Crane operators, like the one in this crane working above the Fraser Centre in State College, scale the massive rig, which can take about 15 minutes, before beginning the 10-hour workday.
Crane operators, like the one in this crane working above the Fraser Centre in State College, scale the massive rig, which can take about 15 minutes, before beginning the 10-hour workday. Photo provided

As the parking garage elevator descended, the young woman turned to her friend.

She had glanced out the the elevator window across East Beaver Avenue. All of a sudden, the scene jogged her memory.

“When my dad was visiting, he said, ‘What an amazing crane,’ ” she recalled. “He couldn’t take his eyes off it.”

It was an understandable reaction. Rising 230 feet above State College, the steel giant of The Fraser Centre construction site commands attention.

I know firsthand. Recently, I stood distracted from an errand, watching in fascination while the Peiner SK-315 hammerhead tower crane’s jib glided a massive girder weighing a few tons through the air, and gently set it into place as though it were a Lego block.

Something about the sight — the rotating jib, the sliding cables, the flying beam linked to a hook block — connected with my inner child, and I took in the spectacle, mesmerized.

These days, tower cranes standing tall like gargantuan sentinels have become a downtown attraction, visible from blocks away. Two loom over The Metropolitan site at the corner of Atherton Street and West College Avenue.

But the Peiner SK-315, powered by a rented portable generator the size of a van, has been drawing more scrutiny lately than its nearby counterparts.

Leonard S. Fiore, Inc., the Altoona-based project contractor, lately has been making steady progress on The Fraser Centre. As a result, the rented crane brought from Maryland has stayed busy helping to erect the skeletal frame emerging from what had been a gigantic pit for months.

There’s one component, however, more impressive than the tower mast’s 11 sections — which took 10 flatbed trucks to deliver and a 550-ton crane to assemble in May — and the 196-foot long jib hoisted aloft by another crane.

On the eve of Labor Day, here’s to the person who runs it all with a different perspective on work.

Two licensed crane operators, one with 15 years of experience and the other with 25, take turns maneuvering the crane from a cab about 6 feet high, 3 feet wide and 5 feet long. To reach their office, they must climb, tethered to safety lines the entire way.

“It is a physical workout getting to the top,” said Bill Gunnett, the L.S. Fiore equipment manager. “The younger guy can do it in seven minutes, the more experienced operator 15 minutes counting a break.”

Once up top, they sit in a heated and air-conditioned box that can sway a bit despite the 28-square-foot concrete base anchoring below — a flexibility built into the mast to withstand wind. They also have great views, including straight down through the glass floor.

Just imagining both makes my skin crawl. I fight off vertigo climbing onto my roof to sweep away leaves and clean the gutters, so I would last all of 12 seconds in the stratosphere, assuming I could pry my fingers from the ladder rails enough to ascend.

Given my aversion to heights, it’s even harder to picture staying in such a perch for 10 hours, a normal shift. Which begs the question: What about when nature calls?

It’s rare. Crane operators learn to be extremely careful about what they eat and drink before reporting to work. But when they gotta go, they’re not going back down. The options are bottles with tight lids and, for the worst-case scenario, a 5-gallon bucket with a liner.

They save the most control for the job itself.

Their fingers move joysticks with a brain surgeon’s precision and a concert pianist’s touch, entrusted with a grave responsibility. From the 28,000-pound house assembly, the revolving superstructure that’s the heaviest part of the crane, operators develop a highly-refined feel for moving and positioning large amounts of material above their co-workers’ heads and within the site’s confines.

“All of the guys that are really good, it’s fluid,” Gunnett said. “It’s like an extension of their hands ... They think and it happens. There’s no delay. It really comes natural to them.”

Every ounce of unique skill is needed when tons are involved. The crane’s capacity is 17.6, though when the trolley moves along the jib to the farthest pick at street level, the load can’t exceed 9,000 pounds.

But operators don’t work alone. They rely on help, especially when lowering their loads blindly into tight spots. Riggers on the ground radio instructions, guiding lifts, and through teamwork jobs get done smoothly and safely.

“These guys have started on small machines and worked their way up to these (cranes), but every crane on a job site requires constant attention and discipline, communication with those around you and qualified individuals on the ground directing you,” Gunnett said.

“There is never an easy day or job when you’re swinging materials around people. These guys have respect for what it is they are in charge of, and the guys on the ground trust them.”

In general, crane operators are a select bunch, with extensive training and experience behind them. Those atop tower cranes literally take it to a new level: the cream of the crop or, in Gunnett’s words, “a crane operator and then some.”

That’s why he considers himself fortunate to have two keeping a giant turning and a structure rising.

“He’s one of the most critical guys on the job,” Gunnett said. “If he doesn’t come in, I have to bring in the second guy. If he can’t come in, the job shuts down.”

On behalf of all middle-aged Lego fans, please don’t let that happen. We don’t want to miss the show.