Construction cranes alight atop Honolulu
March 4, 2014
Construction cranes alight atop Honolulu
Honolulu Star-Advertiser

By Andrew Gomes

It is the Year of the Horse in the Chinese calendar, but in Hawaii's construction industry you might say 2014 is the Year of the Crane.

So far this year, at least 10 of the mostly yellow tower construction cranes are busy building everything from a Walgreens store to high-rise condominiums in Honolulu. And at least eight more are expected to rise by the end of the year as part of a condo development boom in Kaka-ako.

The demand is using up the local supply of 18 cranes and forcing the state's largest crane supplier, Morrow Equipment Co., to ship in more from the mainland.

"Our local inventory is completely committed," said Andrew Jones, Hawaii branch manager for Oregon-based Morrow.

Two of the stiltlike pieces of heavy-lifting machinery were erected last month to help build the 45-story Symphony Hono lulu condo at the corner of Ward Avenue and Kapiolani Boulevard.

A crew from Northwest Tower Crane Service Inc. took two days to put up each crane for project contractor Nordic PCL Construction.

Setting up the cranes, which now are about 200 feet high but will grow to more than 400 feet as the condo tower rises, provided an opportunity to examine how these workhorses work.

Don Daschuk, general superintendent for Nordic PCL, said the primary job for the crane is forming a tower's concrete superstructure, including hoisting rebar and forms to make columns and walls.

Cranes also typically hoist close to 75 percent of all materials that go into building a tower.

"The crane is the most efficient way to stock the building," he said.

Nordic PCL decided to build Symphony using two cranes because the building's design includes a lot of concrete form work — 1.5 million square feet — with a considerable amount of that in a seven-story podium that will house a luxury car dealership and parking.

Because the crane is the backbone for construction, a quick and efficient operator is crucial to keeping a project on schedule and on budget. Crane work delays can idle other highly paid workers, thus wasting time and money.

The union for crane operators, Operating Engineers Local 3, said that getting hired for a crane job rides on skills.

"Contractors have a very low tolerance for slow and even less tolerance for rough or jerky, which can lead to accidents and injuries," the union said in a statement. "As an operating engineer, you are only as good as your last job. There is no seniority — it's all about your abilities. You have to be the best you can be all the time, or you will not work."

Usually just one crane operator works throughout a high-rise project, which can last 18 months.

On the Symphony job, Chris Knott is operating one of the two cranes.

Knott is an 18-year veteran of the position that he described as stressful and sometimes exhausting but also exhilarating.

"I wouldn't do anything else," he said. "I love it."

Knott, like other crane operators, typically works 12 hours a day six days a week, with every minute of that spent in the crane cab. There are no meal or bathroom breaks. Those things happen during pauses between "flying" materials on the crane hook.

Knott equated the job with playing a video game but with severe safety concerns. "There is a lot of pressure," he said.

The Operating Engineers union said proficient tower crane operation can take years of experience. Though many operators like Knott progressed to tower cranes from smaller rigs without a training program, the union plans to implement a crane apprentice program this year. The program will involve a minimum 8,000 hours of on-the-job training and 480 hours of supplemental training.

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