DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) – One of the favorite parts of Joe Lawler’s job is the tangible progress he can see after a day at work.
“If you start in the morning it’s just bare ground, and by the end of the day you might have a finished first or second story,” he said.
Lawler has worked as a crane operator for A-1 Crane Rental & Machinery Moving for the past 13 years. The Dubuque business is one of several regional companies that provide crane and elevator services to a variety of industries.
According to office manager Karen Hoefler, A-1 Crane Rental owns 11 hydraulic cranes ranging from 4.5 to 240 ton machines. The company also has access to cranes that can lift up to 400 tons through its sister company Tri-State Crane & Rigging Service in Cedar Rapids.
A-1 Crane Rental works with general contractors and companies in industries from agriculture to energy. On a certain day, they can lift a heating or cooling device onto a roof, set up trusses for a construction project, or move heavy machinery for a manufacturing company.
Lawler enjoys the variety that comes with work.
“There’s something new every day … and you can do really cool things,” he told the Dubuque Telegraph Herald. “We have lifted everything from MRA (magnetic resonance angiography) machines to statues.”
For Lawler, a job begins by gathering the necessary information from the customer. This includes not only the weight of the object and the height and distance it is to be moved, but also factors such as the nature of the ground and hazards such as sewer tunnels or power lines.
According to Hoefler, every A-1 crane has an associated “card book” that helps operators select the best crane for each job.
“When something is so many feet away and so high and so heavy, (the map book) will tell us whether or not the crane can pick it up,” she said.
Sometimes the best machine may not be a crane at all.
“Our last purchase was a 40,000-60,000 pound forklift truck used for heavy machinery and manufacturing operations,” said Hoefler.
Other companies in the area use a variety of machines to handle the heavy lifting.
Jake Schroeder of Tegeler Wrecker & Crane in Dyersville said the company owns rotating wrecker that can lift up to 85 tons. These machines differ from traditional towing machines in that the boom can rotate 360 degrees instead of simply going up and down.
“They’re made to wind, pull, and lift,” he said. “They are much more geared towards, for example, removing large semi-trailers from trenches, while a crane is geared towards vertical lifting and lowering.”
Schroeder said another key difference between a crane and a rotating tow tractor is the boom length.
“We have a boom of around 50 feet on some of these scrappers, while your typical crane might have a boom over 90 feet,” he said.
Once the right machine has been selected, the operators face another hurdle: Finding the best way to get the machine to the job site.
According to Lawler, A-1 Crane Rental’s largest crane weighs 150,000 pounds. With machines this size, crossing certain bridges can be impossible, and the hilly geography of the area presents a challenge.
Lawler described a recent tree removal job that required him and his staff to build a ramp to safely steer the crane into the customer’s backyard.
“There’s a lot of groundwork, thinking, and geometry going into every pick to make sure it works safely and efficiently,” he said.
When the machine is finally on the construction site, Lawler relies on his years of experience and training.
He and his colleagues at A-1 are certified by the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators. According to Lawler, the process includes passing an initial general knowledge test, after which operators can earn certifications for various specialty cranes. All operators have to be recertified every five years.
“Not everyone can jump in,” says Höfler with a laugh.
She added that many citizens do not fully understand the risks involved in the day-to-day work of a crane operator.
“It’s a very dangerous job, very,” she said. “… With the weight of everything, it can be very dangerous if someone stands on these (calculations), to the point of toppling cranes.”
She said that A-1 Crane Rental inspects its cranes “daily, monthly and yearly” to ensure operator safety.
Lawler always remembered the dangerousness of his job.
“I’m not going to lie, the day I stop being nervous in front of a crane is the day I stop running cranes,” he said. “You consider everything you can and move forward as safely as possible, (but) some of it is a little nerve-wracking.”
Ultimately, however, he enjoys his work, especially the opportunities to contribute to the community in which he grew up. As a graduate of Hempstead High School, he said it was especially important to help build a new gym, pool, and roof during the recent renovations of his alma mater.
He also values the opportunity to work with workers in related industries, including Cedar Valley Steel, one of A-1 Crane Rental’s other sister companies.
“The collaboration with the guys and gals in the industry is enormous,” he said. “… We are building America, we just enjoy it and are proud of it.”