The Mental Strain of Being a Crane Operator

On a construction site where countless men climb over the skeleton of a construction 14 stories tall, just a few are prepared to scale the swaying 250-foot-high tower crane where Willie Steinberg sits, surveying everything.

For six months Steinberg was working here, hanging iron high above Fifth Avenue by placing massive columns throughout the place to teams of men standing on an open scaffolding that will eventually come to be a new King County office building.

Just one miscalculation and thousands of pounds of steel can plummet, killing employees, halting multimillion-dollar projects. Nevertheless, Steinberg, like most crane operators, functions without any device to tell him just how much weight he’s lifting, or precisely where his hook has shrunk. It’s all done based on texture, expertise and the say-so of a person on the ground below, radioing instructions.

People who believe the toughest aspect of his day is simply scaling the narrow ladder don’t have a clue, he explains. The mental strain of the occupation is ‘like being in all-day surgery’.

Public perception was on Steinberg’s mind since a tower crane collapsed at a construction site in downtown Bellevue, damaging several buildings and killing the resident of a nearby apartment building. A state investigation into the accident is continuing and has yet to determine a cause.

The operator of the Bellevue crane miraculously suffered only minor injuries, but his commitment to the task has been called into question because of his history of drug-related convictions.

Like many countries, Washington requires no special permit to operate a crane or slab scissors, no timetable for crane inspections without any regulations for replacing worn cables. Nor are there rules for the duration of time an operator may work before taking a compulsory break.

Steinberg’s crane, for instance, was built in 1984. He’s got no idea if its welds are checked since. Considering these truths, Chris Barron, a crane maintenance contractor for Jorgensen Forge, said that crane operators can do little more than create a cursory glance over their machines prior to lifting the tower and turning the ignition key. State inspections of the cranes are not required in Washington.

In his chair, high over the city, Steinberg cannot even see all the effects of his conclusions. He swings a lot of steel over work sites with only a vague idea of who’s underneath him or where they are standing. Everything is dependent on messages from the sign man below.

When the winds whip to dangerous speeds Steinberg shuts the crane off but stays in his perch. It takes a half-hour to descend the steel construction so he sits and waits, this is also through lunch and coffee breaks, relieving himself in a plastic bottle or paper bag if necessary, and carrying down the waste at night. He begins work at daylight and finishes after dark.

After graduating high school in West Seattle, he spent four decades as a roofer and warehouse employee, waiting to join Operating Engineers Local 302. His father, a surveyor, helped him into the industry. Initially, he worked on the ground, but was climbing cranes the first chance he got, working as an oiler to clean, lubricate and maintain the giant, steel machines. He would fill in when operators had a break, learning on the job, mainly by observation and practice.

On his first job, a 28-story construction in downtown Seattle, winds whipped around 85 mph and Steinberg sat in his cab, petrified. He’d never even been on the ground in gales such as that, let alone so high in the air. Old-timers had cautioned against descending in these weather, insisting it was safer to remain in the enclosed controller house. But Steinberg, grasping the vibration tower like a bug on a wall, didn’t care.

He has since worked through the Nisqually Quake and in jobs across Seattle, at condos and office buildings, the new federal courthouse, Safeco Field and Microsoft.

Crane operators are the sought after elites in building, with specialized knowledge and commensurate pay. They are easily able to earn six-figure incomes. But the pressure is severe. Though convinced after 15 years at work, Steinberg is never comfortable. The concentration he has to maintain is intense, the possible risk great. Stress is a constant.

At home in North Bend, Steinberg’s wife, Lynn, normally pushes away all thoughts about her husband’s job. She has never been close to his crane at work and when word came the week of the accident at Bellevue, she could not look at the TV news footage without getting queasy.

For the couple’s 11-year-old son, David, the effect was worse. Unable to sleep, he begged his father to stay home the following day. Steinberg demurred, he had been in the Seattle job website, as normal, by 6 a.m. the following morning as it is not a job but a lifestyle choice for him.

Although the mental strain is higher for crane workers than it is for those working in an IT service company, just as Steinberg has shown, you need to have a passion and love for the steel masterpieces in order for them not to completely cripple your mental health.