August 7, 2005
Straight to the top
Special to The Seattle Times
KEN LAMBERT / SEATTLE TIMES
There's only a couple of workers among the several dozen on the 2200 Westlake construction site, near Westlake Avenue and Denny Way, who can get away with not wearing a hard hat. One of them is Willie Steinberg, who operates one of the site's two tower cranes, which perch like giant one-legged birds above building sites all over the area.
Where Steinberg works, in a chair squeezed into a glass-enclosed cab 297 feet (and 310 steps) above the street, the only thing that could possibly hit him on the head would be his own hard hat, which is stored in a crevice of the cab just above him.
Either that or a bolt of lightning, which occasionally flashes down and electrifies tower cranes, which aren't equipped with lightning rods. Steinberg, who has worked on cranes for 25 years, says he's never been hit, though he's seen lightning zap nearby towers.
He's actually skilled in the operation of just about any type of heavy equipment, including backhoes, bulldozers and graders, as are most members of Operating Engineers, Local 302. But tower cranes are Steinberg's specialty.
"This is where the money is," he says with a grin.
Want a seat in the sky?
Pay: About $30 an hour and up, plus overtime.
Demand: Good, when there are buildings going up, as is the case now.
Skills needed: Good hand-to-eye coordination, no fear of heights and the ability to withstand working alone in cramped quarters for an extended period of time.
Information: Contact the Operating Engineers, Local 302 at www.iuoe302.org
Though crane operators don't earn any more per hour than those who run other kinds of heavy equipment (about $30 to $33 per hour), they usually rack up more overtime.
Since tower cranes cost about $30,000 a month to rent, and building schedules are demanding, crane operators are asked to maximize their work output. In Steinberg's case, that amounts to about 20 overtime hours a week.
He said he started in crane work as an "oiler," performing maintenance on mobile cranes, the kind you see rumbling around the city on the backs of trucks. After about a decade working on and operating mobile cranes, he graduated to tower cranes, and he jokes that he's been "stuck there" ever since. Demand is greater for tower-crane operators, plus the money is better, he says.
What does it take to excel at operating a tower crane?
"You've got to have the guts to run it, plus the knowledge," Steinberg says, "and you can't grasp that knowledge overnight. It takes time in the seat. A lot of guys think they're qualified to do this but aren't. There's a lot of finesse required. What it takes is confidence. Until you have confidence, you shouldn't do it."
A training facility in Eastern Washington run by Local 302 helps trainees learn the basics, but it doesn't offer much in the way of real-world experiences. That can only be obtained on a job site, Steinberg says.
The other important quality for tower-crane operator, he says, is having a profound respect for machines.
"Once you get complacent with a machine like this," he says, "that's when you get into trouble. I take a lot of pride in what I do, but I remind myself on a daily basis: Anything can happen."
Steinberg believes there's a shortage of qualified, experienced tower-crane operators now.
Later this summer, according to Tony Toppenberg, Turner's Construction site safety manager, 30 tower cranes will be animating Seattle's skyline, an indication of how much demand there is for operators.
Besides crane operators, another group of local residents will be pleased with this news: peregrine falcons. The bird-hunting raptors often perch on tower cranes to survey the airscape for potential prey.
"They'll land on the very tippy top of the crane and wait for their moment," Steinberg says.
"I'll see this flash and they take off and just pounce on these pigeons. National Geographic stuff. It's unbelievable."
Toppenberg, who accompanied a reporter climbing the tower's steps to meet Steinberg, said the crane is a safe place to be during a lightning storm.
"This is the lightning rod," he said. Toppenberg went on to explain that because the massive steel-and-concrete pad on which the tower sits is grounded into the earth, electricity passes harmlessly through the tower (and its occupants) and fizzles out in the dirt.
Don't tell that, however, to the crane operator on Mercer Island whose crane, earlier this year, was struck by lightning.
A buddy of Steinberg's filled in for the operator the next day, so she could go to the doctor and confirm that the tingling sensation she felt in her fingers and toes wasn't serious. (She returned to work the next day.)
The other natural phenomenon that gets every tower-crane operator's attention is an earthquake. Although operators get used to a certain amount of motion from the tower, too much is a bad thing.
Despite an appearance of structural rigidity to someone looking at it from the ground, a tower crane is actually alive with movement.
As you climb the endless ladders up through the bowels of the tower, pausing to catch your breath and taking in the dizzying view, you can feel the whole structure twist and torque subtly, in response to loads being picked up and swung around on the jib (the crane's horizontal component).
Like a giant erector set, a tower is made up of pieces, each 20-feet long, attached to each other with bolts the size of a small fist.
So with up to 15 tower sections connected one atop the other, there's lots of wiggle room.
And when something like the Nisqually Earthquake comes rolling through the earth, those subtle motions of the crane magnify into something much more frightening.
Steinberg was operating a tower crane in Bellevue when the big fella struck.
He said his jib began to undulate like "Galloping Gertie," referring to the wild gyrations of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which collapsed during a windstorm in November 1940. It took Steinberg a few seconds before he realized what was happening, and his first instinct was to abandon ship. It didn't matter that if the crane was going to topple he wouldn't have had time to escape. He was shaken but unscathed.
As subtle as tower motion usually is sort of like being jostled as you're riding a bus or subway it sometimes can lead to motion sickness, the kind you'd get fishing for salmon from a small boat off Ilwaco, which Steinberg occasionally does.
He says he doesn't feel anything at the beginning stages of a project. But as a building "grows" up toward him, he perceives the motion of the crane more, and he'll often feel nauseated.
On a project like the 2200 Westlake, Steinberg must pick up and move at least 125 loads a day, and often more. Other than a coffee break at 10 a.m. and a brief stop for lunch, "that crane is rocking and rolling," he says.
Like someone playing a video game, he is completely absorbed by the challenge of each "pick," lifting loads of steel or concrete or wood or anything else the workers use from the ground or the backs of trucks to a spot somewhere on the site.
Although the crane has a maximum capacity of 35,000 pounds, most picks are less than 13,000 pounds, with the majority in the 2,000- to 6,000-pound range, he says.
Wind is the biggest challenge, making it difficult to move loads safely. Experience has taught him to work with the wind. When setting down a heavy load, for instance, he'll try to head into the wind, using it as a kind of brake. Though he's worked in 40 to 50 mile-per-hour winds, anything above that is considered unsafe.
As Steinberg sits in his padded chair, each hand manipulating a 3-inch joystick mounted on each arm, he peers down past his own sock-clad feet to the tiny human figures far below.
A fan and a couple of open windows keeps the air moving inside the cab, which on a hot summer day can climb above 100 degrees. He is so far up that occasionally he uses binoculars to pick out details. At times he relies more on the eyes of a ground assistant than his own, especially to navigate around obstacles and blind spots.
He compares his job to that of a quarterback because he (and the guy who operates the site's other tower crane) controls the whole show.
Every piece of equipment and material on the site gets there by crane, and the operators have to maintain a steady pace to keep up with tight construction schedules and numerous deadlines.
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