Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Crane Guys: The operators share the view from above Cox South

If you come to work each day at the Cox South campus, James Spillman and Joel Scheppert are watching over you. Not in a big brother sense, but they may be able to hand you something heavy – like a four-ton piece of steel – if you need it.

By 7 a.m., Joel and James are at their posts, perched atop the two tower cranes building the new patient tower. The small cabs enclosed in glass are their offices – “maybe it’s more like my home,” Joel says with a laugh.

In his 27 years working in cranes, Joel has traveled across the United States. Now, the Cox South project allows him to commute daily from his farm near Stark City, Mo. For James, the job is a change from his usual environment – working among Dallas skyscrapers near his home in Royse City, Texas.

The job offers a bird’s eye view of the construction site, the campus and Springfield. From that vantage point, they execute the precise movements that set the pieces in place as the tower rises out of the ground, floor by floor. Communication is key: The operators have to know where the other crane is at any given time, especially if they’re about to make a big move.

It’s a delicate process that requires teamwork and cooperation from the elements. If there’s one nemesis for guys who work 200 feet in the air, it’s the wind.

Wind is what makes it a good day or a bad day. It’s what creates the constant motion at the top of the crane. It’s your archenemy when you have a 10,000-pound load dangling from your line and workers on the ground ask you to move it “two feet to the left.”

It was the wind that gave us the chance to catch up with the operators on a spring afternoon. When it’s too windy to work safely, the cranes shut down to wait for better weather. This gave Joel and James a few rare minutes of downtime to reflect on their profession, the project and what it’s like to work above us all. Here’s what the men in the sky had to say:

What’s a typical day like?

Joel: Every day is different. On a good day, you’re busy. You might get a minute to collect your thoughts, then it’s “Joel, can you pick this or that?” By now I know what voice goes with what hard hat.

James: It doesn’t change much job to job. Columns are columns, staircases are the same, elevator walls are the same. They’re all similar, yet no two days are alike.

Joel: I like to get up there early, so I can be in place when everyone is ready to start. I usually have my orange juice and a Pop-Tart in the operator’s seat.

What’s unique about working on a project like this?

Joel: The size of this site is a lot like working in a downtown area, with The Turner Center behind me and the hospital in front of me. At least there’s room to turn 360 degrees; sometimes between buildings you don’t get that. I know how far I am from the hospital, but every time I swing around, it’s like, “man, that’s close!”

James: With two cranes when the job site is limited, it’s a challenge. Would headache be the right word? (laughs) There’s a lot of communication between the operators.

Joel: If I’m going into his area, I have to let him know I’m coming to his 2 o’clock. You know where the other guy is without asking. Except for those times when you forget and you see him out of the corner of your eye!

How long does it take to become a skilled operator?

Joel: When I get there, I’ll call you! I believe you can improve the rest of your life.

James: There’s always somebody better than you. But it’s not really us. We’re up there pulling the levers, but it’s the flaggers (crew members on the ground who guide the pick up and lowering of the cranes’ loads through radio contact with the operators) who make us look good. A lot of credit has to go to them. They do all the fine tuning.

Joel: They have one of the most important jobs on the site. They can make our job really easy or really make us work. At 200 feet up, you can get close, but there are limits: They call for another foot, but that looks like an inch to me.

What was it like working through the winter?

Joel: I don’t want to talk about it; I get depressed (laughs). It’s been a gusty spring so far. The wind has been awful, that actually may be the most challenging part.

James: I’ve been in winters and I’ve been in ice, but this is the first job I’ve been on where the trolley froze up on me. I definitely felt sorry for guys on the ground. It’s a lot harder to make the climb. When you get close to the top, it’s icy and it can be slick. A couple of times, I got on my hands and knees to get to the cab. I had to pry my door open one day.

Wind aside, what else has been challenging about this project?

James: The big challenges come later on. As we build the upper floors, it gets easier to see where the load will go and there is less line hanging down. Once the building is taller, though, it is an obstacle. There are a lot of blind picks coming up, setting glass on the side of the building opposite of the crane. Man, I hate glass. I’m always afraid that suction cup won’t hold!

Joel: They usually know if it won’t hold before it leaves the ground. I love glass! You get to pick and drop for a minute and then just repeat.

Image courtesy of KYTV. See photographer Cody Nutt's video on KY3.com here.

What’s the biggest misconception about tower cranes?


Joel: They are nothing like a regular crane – they never quit moving. A lot of people can’t adjust to the fact that it moves all the time. I don’t think about it, I trust it. You have to or you can’t get up there.

James: People say, “I could do that, that’s easy.” It is, but it isn’t. There’s a lot involved in knowing how to catch the load, how to control the load and how to work with the wind that’s working against you.


Joel: Faced into the wind, if they want two inches, when you hit the button, they’re getting two feet! 

James: You definitely can’t be afraid of heights. There’s a lot of sway in the tower itself. 

I remember the first time I ran one, when I got home, my wife and I were sitting on the back deck. She turned to me and asked if I felt OK. I was fine, why? I guess I was sitting there rocking back and forth without knowing it – I had been doing that all day in the crane. 

What’s your most memorable experience working on cranes? 

James: On a job in Arlington, Texas, I set a pedestrian bridge between two buildings. That was big – everyone was out there on that one, even the mayor. I was sweating. There was no room for error. God was with me; everything was with me. There was no wind that day. The flaggers guided me and it slid right in, just like it was supposed to. That made me feel pretty good. 

Joel: I set the big brass elk in the boat area at Bass Pro. It was so windy that day, maybe 25 mph winds. They said: “Johnny (Morris) is here, it has to be set. You can set it, right?” I said, “Yeah, I think I can ” (laughs). I also set one of the houses on the “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” in Joplin. We had worked until midnight the night before and they had us arrive at 5 the next morning to set up and be ready at 5:30. Then, the house pulls up, and they tell us “we have to wait for the light to be right.” We waited on the light for about four hours! 

What’s it like to work on a project like this that will have such an impact on our community? 

Joel: We have the best view of Springfield of anyone here. We have the best view of the whole hospital. I love seeing the helicopters come in and take different paths adjusting for the wind. When it’s all done, it will be a great feeling to drive by and say, “I worked on that.” James: Springfield is a very nice town and people here ought to be proud of their city. It’s not too big, and not too small and there are places close by where you can see a bit of history.

It just makes me proud to do my part to help heal others. I’m proud to know that I had something to do with that.