They’re everywhere. If you live or work in a high rise, you might be on eye level with them. On the street, you see them soaring from construction sites. They look a little like the bird version of the same name, angling their long, graceful necks into the sky.
There are two kinds of cranes: lattice cranes, which operate from a cab on the ground, and tower cranes, which operate aloft and move up and down an elevator.
If you’re seeing more tower cranes, it’s because they take up less room in an urban environment, according to Greg Lalevee, head of Local 825, the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), which covers all of New Jersey.
When you see one of these monsters lifting a giant steel girder that swings in the breeze like Godzilla’s toothpick, you probably have the same thought I have: What if this thing falls on my head?
Fortunately, the IUOE spends $150 million a year on training.
“Operating a crane is like flying a plane on any given day,” Lalevee says. “You have to make sure it’s maintained properly like an airplane.”
Lalevee, who comes from a family of crane operators—father and two brothers—started operating cranes in the 1980s and stopped when he was hired by the union in 2000.
“When I was 10 years old, my father was working on a high school in our home town, and in the summertime, I went down and watched for a couple of hours,” Lalevee says.
But being a legacy crane-operator-wannabe isn’t enough.
“You have to have the desire and aptitude to do it,” Lalevee says. “You need technical knowledge and coordination. It’s a lot of responsibility.”
Spoiler alert! You can’t be afraid of heights. Lalavee describes the frightening possibility that a crane operator might have to walk on an aluminum plank between the building and the crane, 700 feet in the air.
“Our members are the best prepared and most experienced crane operators available anywhere,” Lalavee says. “They are precisely the people you want where precision and safety come together.”
It’s Lonely at the Top
Among the buildings Lalavee worked on in Jersey City are 101 Hudson St.—he recalls working at 101 Hudson in 1990 when the First Gulf War started—and one of the buildings attached to the Newport Mall.
“Workers work close to the edge,” he says, “and you could knock a person off; they’d rather go home at night. And sometimes you’re picking up weight that’s at the outer limits of the crane’s capacity. It’s a big accident waiting to happen.”
He recalls one scary incident:
“A colleague was unloading a truckload of steel on Montgomery Street on a particularly windy day. The wind was pushing 30 tons all over the place like nothing. It was sliding around in a circle. He had to keep his wits about him to keep it under control. It was 30 stories up at 8 a.m., and people were walking to Exchange Place, oblivious to what was going on overhead. It was the fight of his life to bring the load to the top of 101 Hudson. It was not a good 10 minutes of his life.”
But there are perks to being a crane operator.
“You sit up there on a day like today [sunny, clear spring day] with a view of the Manhattan skyline and out to the Meadowlands and the Palisades. My brother took a picture of the sunrise over the river.”
Cranes Mean Construction
Back when Lalavee started operating cranes, he says, there were no high rises between the Newport area and 101 Hudson. “Now, think about how many high buildings there are,” he says. His youngest brother is working on a high rise on the waterfront. Lalavee’s mother is the only one in his family who is not a crane operator, but he knows of one woman operator who worked on the Goldman Sachs building.
I ask him about what appear to be cranes on the top of that building. He says it could be window- washing equipment. “Once upon a time I worked at the Budweiser brewery in Newark,” he relates. “They had a sign on top with a logo that had its own little crane in case they needed to service the sign or bring up more neon.”
Though Lalavee hasn’t been on a crane in 14 years, he goes to the training center in Dayton, NJ, to keep up his license and to keep current with what the union rank and file is doing. “It’s important to stay grounded [so to speak] and see what’s out there in technology,” he says. “It’s always advancing, and you have to keep current on the latest and greatest, and newest.” He mentions a new heavy-lift crane at the training center.
“The 60-acre center is equipped with various types of cranes, including a lattice and tower crane, as well as simulators,” he says. “No one goes out on a job without thorough training and hands-on experience, and everyone knows, safety comes first.”
Development, Lavalee says, will be “part of life in Jersey City for the foreseeable future. It’s good to see. Look at what a bustling city within a city Newport has become. People, culture, and businesses thriving are a good thing.”—Kate Rounds