- Associated Press - Saturday, September 30, 2017

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (AP) - Nick Michels begins every work day with a similar routine that always involves a trip to the bathroom.

It’s before the sun rises when he unlocks the door to the elevator shaft at the construction site of the Confluence Arts Center in downtown Eau Claire and grabs his portable urinal - a laundry detergent jug - that he left there from the day before, the Leader-Telegram reported .

“That’s not laundry detergent,” he said. “You can use that to wash your clothes if you want, but they’re not smelling like Mountain Rain.”

He cleans it out in the bathroom. While there, Michels zips up his sweatshirt and tucks it into his jeans. Inside of it he stuffs his thermos, portable urinal and whatever food he packed into zip-locked bags.

Michels, 45, is a tower crane operator employed by Industrial Construction Specialists in Eau Claire, and chances are that once he climbs 153 handrails 153 feet up the tower crane, he won’t descend until his work day is over.

He operates a Liebherr 320 crane with a load-carrying capacity of close to 14 tons, though he hasn’t come across anything that heavy on this project yet. His job is to communicate with crewmen on the ground who secure loads onto the hook that Michels sends down.

All members of the construction crew depend on the crane operator to do their jobs. Those most commonly in communication with him include masons, carpenters, general laborers and ironworkers.

“Without him, the project right now would come to a halt,” said Justin Geissler, a project manager for Market & Johnson, which is handling construction of the $45 million performing arts center. “He’s an important part of that project.”

The hook is attached to a trolley that Michels can pull toward him or send out along a jib, a 234-foot horizontal arm that extends in front of Michels’ line of sight.

“All right, line down, trolley up about 12 feet,” an ironworker’s message rings out to Michels over a two-way radio on Friday.

“Line down would have you bring the load line down,” Michels explained as he maneuvered the lever in his right hand to drop the hook. “Everybody calls it a cable. It’s a wire rope, actually. Not a cable.”

Michels’ office is a 5-by-5-foot cabin that sits near the top of the crane tower that he climbs, and carefully inspects for any damage, daily. He’ll remain there until his shift ends at 4 or 5 p.m.

Occasional platforms break up the climb, and safety cages around the ladder ensure the climber won’t fall backward. That provides enough of a safety feature so that the operators aren’t harnessed in or tethered to the structure.

Inside the cab on either side of his operator chair is his trolley and hoist controls.

Michels drapes his sweatshirt over the back of his chair. Even with air conditioning inside the cab, it’s too hot to wear long sleeves. The windows open, but Michels’ experience with bees flying in and noise distractions aren’t worth the fresh air.

He notes the blind spots that exist on each corner of the cab, but three windows to his right, left and front for the most part provide a clear view of the site.

The view from up top doesn’t impress him much anymore; the bird’s-eye view of downtown Eau Claire, the horizon marked by a Banbury Place sign, brick buildings and tree lines and the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers have become something he’s used to seeing. He’s more preoccupied with the crewmen’s and his own safety.

Occasionally he’ll see something that catches his eye, and for a closer look he grabs his binoculars from a nearby shelf. The binoculars’ main purpose is to help Michels see hand signals from men on the ground, another method they use to communicate with him.

“Michels, you don’t happen to see a semi truck out there full of iron, do ya?” a voice comes through the scanner.

“I do. It’s about 93 feet straight east, southeast of the tower,” he radios back.

“10-4.”

Michels is one of about 70 certified tower crane operators affiliated with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139 in Wisconsin, said Dan Sperberg, training director at the Wisconsin Operating Engineers Training Center near Coloma, south of Stevens Point. About 30 of those are currently operating tower cranes.

Sperberg said people who are successful at the skilled job have excellent communication skills, can work well alone for extended periods and have good depth perception - something Michels struggled with for six weeks after he had eye surgery for a detached retina.

“People don’t get promoted to that job unless they have amazing work ethic,” Sperberg said.

With bricks built high around the large theater on the north side of the project site, Michels can’t always see the load he’s delivering or picking up, something called operating “in the blind.”

He can watch a computerized display to his left that reads out the weight of a load to get an idea of what he’s picking up.

“Bring it left six feet, two, alright trolley in, line it down, looking good,” an ironworker communicates over radio.

Communication is paramount between Michels and the crewmen on the ground, most of whom Michels doesn’t know by name.

“Him saying ‘looking good’ means quite a bit,” Michels said. “Everything I hear on the radio means quite a bit. When I hear silence, I don’t know what’s happening, so I gotta stop operating. And that doesn’t make it smooth. It makes (the crane) jerk and bounce and everything. It’s not good.”

Michels spent about 90 minutes Friday maneuvering the crane between two stationary positions - one in which he picked up iron from a parked semitrailer (he lines up the jib just right with a landmark on the horizon), and the other being the deposit site inside the large theater of the arts center.

He keeps busy all day and can haul up to 18 to 20 picks if he’s working with the carpenters. That’s about as fast as the crane can operate.

If there’s a lull in the action, Michels gets on the radio and calls to other divisions, informing them that the hook is free. Different divisions rent out the crane; however that time is shared among all workers, Michels said.

Michels doesn’t have much spare time because he needs to keep a firm grip on the levers to avoid shutting off power to the crane. His hands get sweaty, but he puts socks over the levers to absorb the sweat.

He limits food and drink intake to avoid having to go to the bathroom. Still, he needs his coffee - black only, so he can go a month without cleaning the thermos, and he always uses a drink container displaying his union’s logo.

Sometimes his meals consist of a banana and an apple. Friday, he had three pieces of cheese and a pork loin.

“I don’t do anything all day, I don’t need to eat a lot,” he said.

Michels has been operating cranes since about 2005, getting certified through an apprenticeship that required 6,000 hours of training, which he completed over several winters at the training center near Coloma.

“Right from the beginning, he took his career very seriously,” Sperberg said. “He was going to reach great heights.

While Michels said he was near the bottom of his Chippewa Falls McDonell High School class in terms of academics, he outshined fellow crane operator trainees when awards were handed out for performance.

“If you’re interested in something, you pay attention,” he said.

He’s certified to operate all cranes with the exception of the indoor overhead crane.

And he’s quick to credit the union for being employed in the only job he’s so far interested in doing.

“I’m very proud of the operating engineers,” Michels said. “It’s a strong union. It fights for the worker, and in a same sense it still fights for the contractor so they’ll be supplied with good help - highly trained and knowledgeable workers.”

Michels will be on the job for another few months. The center is scheduled to open in fall 2018.

While some men search for their next jobs constantly, Michels has kept plenty busy without keeping a keen eye on the industry’s new job prospects.

“If you work with people and learn to trust them, you want them on your next job,” Michels said. “God willing, I will retire doing this.”

___

Information from: Leader-Telegram, https://www.leadertelegram.com/

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