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July 12, 2007 8:56 AM CDT

Getting the Most for Your Crane Time


Cranes are a critical component on today's masonry job sites.
Cranes are a critical component on today's masonry job sites.

Cranes are a critical component on today's masonry job sites. In metropolitan areas or tight working environments, they provide essential assistance in moving materials from ground level to the workers.

"The key benefit of a crane is you can place materials anywhere you need them, on the scaffolding or the floor you're working on," said Jason Smith, salesperson for Tiffen Loader Crane Company in Tiffen, Ohio. "When you have height reaches, cranes lift as high as you could pretty much want them."

The higher the project, the more reliance on cranes: "Anything over the standard forklift height, you have to have a crane at that point," Smith said.

Maximizing Crane Usage
Using cranes isn't cheap. Therefore, if the mason contractor chooses to rent a crane, he or she needs to plan ahead and be ready for the crane when it shows up on the job site. The last thing mason contractors want is to pay big bucks for a crane and an operator, then watch them sit unused because the workers or scaffolding aren't ready.

"You want the crane to be working as much as possible," Smith said. "You don't want to pay for it to be idle."

Since rental cranes are "from portal to portal," or from the time it leaves the rental property until the time it returns, having a crane sit idle can costs hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. By contrast, being prepared for the crane and working with the rental company can prevent unnecessary expenses.

Rental cranes with an operator cost about $150 to $500 per hour. If mason contractors can reduce the amount of time that the crane is onsite by putting it to use as soon as it arrives and having all the materials ready to be lifted to the work platform, it can shave a couple of hours off the rental time, said Jess Sturgeon, general manager for Crane Rental Service Inc. in Orange, Calif. Cutting the rental time on each job could add up to tens of thousands of dollars.

Mason contractors should also make sure there aren't power lines overhead to interfere with the boom, and that the ground surface can support the weight of the crane's outriggers.

"There are a lot of ways to save money," Sturgeon said, noting that one way is for mason contractors to handle the street use permits for cranes. "We have a 25 percent mark up on the permit. We do that because we don't want to have anything to do with it. If that seems expensive, then you go get it. You don't have to put everything on the crane company."

Attachments can make the cranes more efficient, further reducing the time they're needed onsite, said Charles Letford, area product manager, cranes, for Palfinger North America, the parent company of Tiffen Loader Crane Company. He said using pallet forks, which automatically balance and lift pallets, allow cranes to work faster.

"We would also suggest that the mason contractor consider crane attachments, such as pallet forks, and other crane options available from the crane manufacturer," Letford said.

Using cranes for job site delivery of masonry materials can be a money saver.
Using cranes for job site delivery of masonry materials can be a money saver.

The Right Crane for the Job
Also, if the mason contractor is the primary crane renter onsite, to get the appropriate sized crane for the job, the company needs to know how high the load needs to be lifted, how far the load needs to be lifted, and how much the load weighs, said Tiffin's Smith.

Sturgeon agreed. "You've got to give me those three things," he said. "I'll get people who say, 'I need a crane with 100 feet of boom.' They all have 100 feet of boom. That doesn't tell me anything."

Using cranes for job site delivery of masonry materials can also be a money saver. "Cranes are necessary on masonry job sites to place materials when offloading the work truck, whether it's blocks and bricks," Letford said. "This reduces labor costs and it helps to increase workplace efficiency."

As long as the truck can get near the job site, the operator can place the pallets of materials near the work area.

"We get in and set the materials down a lot closer to the job site. That makes everything easier," said Tony Robinson, vice president of H.M. Kelly Inc. in New Oxford, Pa., which operates 30 crane-mounted delivery trucks. "We can make deliveries as long as the job is accessible by truck."

Understanding Crane Signals is Paramount for Safety
Mason contractors place a premium on job site safety, especially when it comes to working around cranes. Safety has not been a problem for the masonry industry, which is why its safety record is far better than other trades — from 1984 to 1994, four deaths occurred in the masonry and tile industries, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Integrated Management Information System.

Training everyone on the job site on the proper use of crane signals is crucial in eliminating accidents and keeping crane productivity high, crane operators said.

"The number one thing people need to know are the crane signals," said Doyle Peeks, editor of in Port Charlotte, Fla. During his 30 years as a crane operator, Peeks has seen all kinds of bizarre hand signs. Sometimes, he'd stop the crane and hold a short meeting to brief everyone on crane signals. "The best thing is to stop everything and get everybody familiar with the signals. Even a 15-minute meeting can help."

Jeff York, president of Signal-Rite LLC, a San Leandro, Calif.-based company that provides onsite training and testing for crane signals, has had similar experiences. He points out that crane operators have to rely on others to help them do their job safely, such as riggers and signalers. It's therefore imperative for everyone to be able to communicate effectively, said York, who's been operating cranes for 25 years.

"The problem is that folks who work around cranes haven't had any formal training on how to signal and how to rig," he said. "Someone has to be versed on hand or voice signals."

Crane operators and signal people often communicate via a two-way radio, which sometimes ends up in the hands of unqualified workers.

"Typically, the person with the least amount of experience gets the radio. The most experienced guys want to pass it off," York said. "They probably think they're going to save money, but the quickest way to watch the profits go down the toilet is to have a crane accident."

His advice to contractors is simple: "Make sure personnel are capable of signaling the crane. You get 20 to 30 percent more production if the person understands the signals instead of using [an incompetent person] who is working without any training," he said. "It will probably prevent an accident."

Training people who signal cranes may soon become mandatory.
Training people who signal cranes may soon become mandatory.

Mandatory Signal Training on the Horizon
Training people who signal cranes may soon become mandatory. OSHA is most likely just a few years away from requiring that only people who are qualified will be allowed to give signals to the crane operator.

York predicts that OSHA will have the regulation in place by the year 2010, although he notes that some people want to "fast track" the process and get it on the books even sooner; in fact, draft language could be out as soon as this year. The OSHA regulations, if they are sanctioned, won't be the first time training has been mandatory — Cal OSHA already requires it.

American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) B30.5, updated in November 2004, calls for a general understanding of signals between the crane operator and the person giving the crane signals. It states that, prior to giving signals, the person needs to be tested to demonstrate a basic understanding of standard hand or voice signals, whichever are used, as well as crane operations and limitations. It's a standard, not a regulation, but OSHA will cite for it.

Several companies are now providing training for signalers, riggers and operators. Training for signal people can be completed onsite in an eight-hour day. DeBary, Fla.-based The Crane School offers a crane hand signal course and, as Bud Wilson, the company's president with more than 40 years of crane experience, explained, properly signaling the crane requires more than a basic understanding of hand signals.

"A lot of guys can look at the signals, but they don't understand how the crane functions," Wilson said. "It's more than visually understanding the hand signals — you need to be proficient. You need to understand how the crane functions. You can't stop on a moment's notice, and the signal people need to know this. The operator needs forewarning. There's a signal for that."

Currently, 14 states require crane operator certification, although crane companies encourage mason contractors to have their operators certified.

"Obtaining operator training and certification would be the number one tip we would offer mason contactors," Palfinger's Letford said.

About the Author

Brett Martin is a freelance writer located in Shakopee, Minn. with several years of construction and writing experience.


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