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A day with a crane driver

Cranes punctuate Queenstown’s skyline as the town revs into overdrive on infrastructure projects to satisfy unprecedented tourism demand. Denise McNabb talks to Smith Cranes’ Queenstown manager Tupuarangi Kopa about being in the crane business in this resort town.

AN ICY WIND blows off the Remarkables’ snow-drizzled peaks, chilling the Wyndham Gardens’ hotel and apartment suites construction site taking shape near the airport.

Tupuarangi ‘Tip’ Kopa, 39,  and his small crew know Queenstown can be cold, even in spring, but working outdoors year round has long hardened their resolve against the elements.

Tip, Smith Cranes’ Queenstown manager, checks the front wheels of the 70-tonne orange crane, jacked high off the ground on large wooden blocks for stability on the uneven ground.

“There is nothing level around here,” he says.

“Sometimes we block cranes so high you can drive a car under them. Knowing how to jack them to a safe but practical level is down to experience and having common sense and good instinct.”

Steel sheets hooked onto the 50-metre boom are hoisted to the fourth floor of the five-storey block of 55 apartment suites.

The crane is part of the company’s 80-strong fleet of high-tech machines imported mainly from Germany, ranging in weight capability from five to 600 tonnes.

The tonnage category of cranes is the weight a crane can lift, not the crane’s weight.

Tip says a crane can be half the weight of its actual load so this must be countered by attaching large slabs of cast iron to the back of the crane. The further away the object is to be lifted, the bigger the amount of counterweight is needed.

“It’s a precise calculation and the most skilled part of being a crane operator,” Tip says.

The 600-tonne crawler is the company’s largest crane and, like the tower crane, has to be disassembled for transportation between jobs. It is presently at the Mataura Valley milk plant at McNab, near Gore in Southland installing an 80-tonne rotating boiler.

Crane companies need Ministry of Transport permits to move cranes and drivers must have the requisite licence for the types of mobile cranes they drive.

Tip says some of the bigger cranes are not permitted to cross bridges.

Council bylaws and regulations must be followed and traffic flows considered by travelling at night or off-peak.

Operator shortage

Tip says the industry needs more crane drivers. It attracts overseas workers. Many landed in Christchurch to work on the earthquake recovery.

His firm recently added a female worker, who has worked with heavy machinery, to the four-man Queenstown team.

Crane operators don’t need school qualifications, but receive training to certification level once in the industry.

“Anybody can walk off the street and work as a crane operator as long as they have initiative and a good dose of common sense,” says Tip.

He got his start after his parents booted him out of his hometown in the Hokianga in the Far North.

“I was bored and mixing with the wrong crowd,” he says.

At the age of 21 he landed in Queenstown where he would later marry Linsey and have two children.

He secured a job at building supplies merchant Carters where stacking timber with Hiabs gave him a taste of crane work.

After gaining his Hiab certificate he worked casually for Smith Cranes before full-time employment in 2007. Three years later his boss, Tim Smith, made him area manager.

Smith Cranes, one of the country’s larger operators, has its own training programme and accredited assessors who meet the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) crane certification criteria.

Other crane companies also do training and there are specialist training schools that are NZQA accredited and compliant with the Department of Labour’s WorkSafe NZ standards.

WorkSafe NZ publishes an approved Code of Practice for crane design, manufacture, supply, safe operation, maintenance and inspection.

All aspects are covered in six months of learning and practical experience. Crane operators must also keep a comprehensive log of every activity during the period before being tested over three days. Their log is also reassessed to make sure everything has been done properly.

Every crane has its own qualification, ranging from the truck loader or knucklebone crane (Hiabs) to spider, overhead gantry, tower, mobile, crawler, mini crawler and non-slewing (pick and carry) cranes.

There are also dogman and rigger courses. The dogman slings loads and directs the lifting and placing operations of a crane while the riggers organise the heavy lifting and moving of large objects.

“Most crane operators do dogman and rigger work as you have to do both courses for mobile crane qualifications,” Tip says.

Depending on the type of crane operation a certificate can cost from $600 to $1500. The starting level is usually with a class 2-class 4 drivers’ licence.

“When I started out you didn’t need a ticket to drive a Hiab but today you run the risk of being personally liable if you cause an accident without it,” Tip says.

He considers crane driving the reward for the hard graft of digging and carting blocks and moving other heavy objects.

Naturally, the job requires a good level of fitness, not being afraid of heights and sound knowledge of cranes. All employees are drug tested before and during the job and workers at Smith Cranes must have a Site Safe passport.

A crane operator earns $18 to $35 an hour for working on small machines to $60 to $70 an hour for the larger cranes, according to the Crane Association of New Zealand’s 2016 rates.

With two staff and a crane on the Remarkables site plus three cranes in the town working on the Juicy Hotel construction and the ‘I Fly’ wind turbine that simulates flying, Tip and his team are busy.

“We mix it up to give staff variety,” he says.

Commercial buildings make up the bulk of the work, especially placing pre-cast concrete slabs, but there is also piling and foundation work, precast concrete civil works, earthquake recovery and ports services.

More unusual jobs Tip’s team have done include rescuing a bus off the side of the Remarkables after its brakes failed, removing a Cessna plane from the airport after it caught fire, and relocating a house in Cromwell.

They also had to remove a septic tank off a body after an accident, a job that required staff counselling from the fire service.

Tip thanks his lucky stars that he has never toppled a crane, although he knows a crane driver who did and nearly lost his life.

“There are high risks that go with the job.

“It can be terrible operating cranes in high winds, but safety is paramount and you have to be precise.”

He wouldn’t trade his job for the world, but has an interesting antidote for hard work. When not in a hard hat, or steel-capped boots, he is an extra actor at Queenstown model and talent agency, ICAN. And he’s pretty chuffed about two lucrative advertising gigs he landed.

This article first appeared in Contractor December 2017

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