Curious Louis: How do the operators get up in the tall cranes? | St. Louis Public Radio

Curious Louis: How do the operators get up in the tall cranes?

Jun 27, 2016

This is a re-posting of an article that originally published in June. 2016. It's part of a year-end celebration of some of our most popular work. 


There’s no shortage of tall yellow cranes helping build the largest construction projects in St. Louis this summer. One listener asked the Curious Louis project how the men and women who operate those cranes get to the top, and we answered.

The question came from Christine Rohloff, a nurse from St. Louis. She wondered about it while driving home from work.  

Christine Rohloff, a nurse from St. Louis, asked Curious Louis how operators get up in the tall cranes.
Credit provided by Christine Rohloff

“I look up and I see this space pod at the top of the crane," Rohloff said, "and I’m thinking, 'Do they climb up there every day? Do they take an elevator? How do they get up there?'" 

Here’s the short answer: They climb.

For the details, we took a trip down to Barnes Jewish Hospital, where workers are erecting a new tower on the north side of its Central West End campus. Rising above the skyline is a 400-foot crane that Tim Miller and other crane operators ascend every day for their shifts.

“We have 20-foot sections of tower, and each section has these ladders that are offset and surrounded by a cage, so we climb one section at a time,” said Miller, a third-generation crane operator for Local 513 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

On many cranes, operators climb from the bottom to the top, resting between the sections. But on this crane, Miller is able to take an elevator inside the unfinished building, up to the 11th floor. 

To get up into the crane, operators ride an elevator to the 11th floor of the unfinished building.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

From there, he walks down a hallway to a catwalk that connects to the crane, and climbs up the rest.

“It takes about 15 minutes," Miller said. "You don’t want to climb up too fast, because when you get up there you’re worn out and hot and sweaty. You’ve got to sit up there all day long.”

The crane runs around the clock. Miller’s shift in the cab runs from 2 to 10p.m.. The night shift operator works from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. That means the morning operator starts climbing up at 5:30 in the morning, so he can start his shift at 6.   

The 400-foot crane above the new Barnes Jewish Hospital building is almost twice as tall as it was when construction began.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

We weren’t able to follow Miller to the top, but his colleague once climbed up with a Go-Pro attached to his helmet. There’s a video on the Campus Renewal Project’s website, here.

But Miller did stay and answer our questions about life on the crane. Here are just a few: 

What’s it like working on top of a 400-foot crane?

“It’s like being on water,” Miller said. “You go home, you’ve still kinda got the wobbles.”

The crane is built to sway, as much as three feet in each direction at the very top. It’s most noticeable when Miller picks up a heavy load.

Miller walks down an 11th floor hallway of the unfinished hospital, to the catwalk where he climbs into the crane.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

“When the crane is up, you can watch your horizon," Miller said. "Next thing you know, you’re kind of looking down,” Miller said. “While that’s all going on, you get a lot of pops and creaks.”

“The first time I started doing this I got nervous and I puckered up a little bit, but after that you get used to it.” 

Miller starts his climb into the air-conditioned cab on top of the 400-foot crane, where he'll stay until his shift ends at 10pm.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

The crane sways more during high winds and lighting storms, and the operators usually try to climb down if they have enough time.

“These things move a lot,” Miller said. “Sometimes you get caught in the storm and you just got to ride it out.”

What’s it like getting hit by lightning in a crane?

“Scary! Or should I say ‘shocking? I was running a crane at Ameristar Casino, and I watched it bounce all down through the tower beneath me. I could see the black marks on the paint,” he said. “Nothing happens to the crane, but once it messed up my computer.”

The morning shift crane operator holds his helmet.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

On the “obvious question”:

“The number one question is, ‘Where do we go to the bathroom?’ So I might as well answer that. There’s a funnel up there that goes all the way down, we’ll just put it that way,” Miller said. “And then we’ve got a bucket.”

So next time you see the lights blinking on top of the cranes around St. Louis, make sure to give Tim Miller a wave.

Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB

What do you wonder about St. Louis or its people that you would like St. Louis Public Radio to investigate? Ask your question in the form below. (If the form doesn't load, find it here.)