Job Spotlight

Tower crane operator Ruben Hamby: ‘I don’t get to make a mistake’

Tower crane operators are the free agents of the construction industry. They are in high demand, must be certified and can make between $30 and $45 an hour.

They can jump from job to job and place to place.

If you are looking for one in Columbus, there is only one place to find him — down by the Chattahoochee River.

Ruben Hamby operates the tower crane on the downtown Columbus site where Brasfield & Gorrie is building a $52-million mixed-use residential and commercial building for the W.C. Bradley Co.

Hamby is the first one on the job site every morning, climbing 140 feet to his office, a cab atop the crane. When all of the people on the ground are finished for the day, Hamby climbs down.

The crane has a 240-foot-arm with which Hamby can move objects that weigh tons, kind of like a kid picking up Lego pieces. The arm’s reach covers the entire 2.3-acre job site.

When things are slow he can take in the view, and it stretches a ways. On a good, clear day, he can see the jump towers at Fort Benning.

Q: How do you become a crane operator?

A: It is a rare breed. I started out old school. My father was a superintendent, so I started out in iron working, working under a crane, working with a crane. Then I moved up to rigging — I rigged for it, did a lot of heavy picks. And then I moved up as my body deteriorated, I moved into crane operator. ... A good crane operator should know all the functions of a crane.

Q: You know everything that crane’s capable of doing?

A: Pretty much.

Q: When you look, it’s obviously the biggest piece of equipment on the job site, right?

A: And it’s the most dangerous piece of equipment, and the most helpful piece of equipment on the job site. It’s all three combined into one.

Q: It sounds like you have a healthy respect for what that machine can do and what can happen?

A: Yes, ’cause look at it this way: I’m in a field I don’t get to make a mistake. A carpenter can cut a piece of wood wrong, he comes back, he gets to redo it, cut it again. A welder gets to make a weld, it fails, he gets to come back and redo and make it good. As the crane operator, you make a mistake, you kill two or three people, you don’t get to come back and redo it.

Q: And you got up to — what? — 6, 7 tons on the end of the crane, sometimes.

A: My max capacity on this crane is like 11 tons, 11 and a half tons.

Q: That’s a lot of weight.

A: My last crane I was on, it would pick up 275 tons.

Q: You still live up in the Valley, right?

A: Still live in the Valley. The last three jobs I’ve worked, I’ve been here local. I worked two in Auburn. I helped build the scoreboard at Auburn University.

Q: I guess you’re an Auburn fan?

A: Roll Tide.

Q: Your work changes from job to job, right?

A: I have worked the Southern Company. ... Now, the job is — it’s stressful — real stressful. I mean, crane operators, everyone of us is on blood pressure pills.

Q: Do you have a spotter?

A: Yes, we have certified riggers.

Q: Those guys tell you what to do?

A: That’s correct. If they make a mistake and I follow them, we both are making a mistake.

Q: In 19 years of doing this, what’s the worst situation you’ve been in?

A: The worse situation I’ve ever been in, I had to be called up on a job to pull a crane up to pick up a pile of steel that trapped a guy that died up there. ... It’s a bad situation. I have seen cranes turned over. I’ve seen ’em flip. I’ve seen ’em broke. I’ve seen the boom sections fall out of ’em. I’ve seen ’em lightning-struck.

Q: Why do you keep going back up there then, man?

A: Because it’s a job nobody else around here pretty much pushes to have or is qualified to do. It’s something my kids can look back on and say, “You know, you see that right there, my Dad helped build that.”

Q: What’s it look like up there? What’s it feel like? You’re up there sometimes 10, 12 hours at a time, right?

A: Yeah. I’m usually — every day — I’m the first one here and the last one to get down. That’s my job description. I can’t leave ’til all the contractors are finished, and I’m here when they start.

Q: OK, I’m gonna ask a stupid question: what do you do for bathroom up there?

A: We have a hose system. If you always notice it, it has a hose system that goes down straight into the potty. The other part, I have trained myself pretty much. I pretty much don’t eat lunch, so I make it through the day. But there’s different ways. I have a can up there and a bag system, so if I do have to go, I can tie a bag up and bring it down.

Q: What about this job do you like?

A: It’s more stressful, but then it is physical, but at the end of the day it’s just like what we did before, like (Brasfield & Gorrie superintendents) Blake (Riley) and Bo (Bickerstaff) pushes you, it’s safety. They want you to come in with 10 fingers, 10 toes and leave with 10 fingers, 10 toes, with a good day’s job behind you. It’s something to look forward to — I mean, a lot of companies don’t care and they don’t push the safety part into it. All they’re worried about is getting the job done, getting the job done.

Q: Safety’s pushed around here?

A: They believe in safety, then quality — and as it comes down, instead of safety last, it’s first.

Q: How fortunate are you to be able to do what you do 25, 30 miles from your house?

A: That’s real fortunate. Last winter, I was in South Dakota. OK, just put it there and for the last eight years, I’ve traveled a lot. It’s hard for the family. It’s hard to raise a family, but if you can find somebody that’s good local to work with, I mean, that’s the greatest deal ’cause I got a 14-year-old son, I got two daughters who are grown. One’s in college at Auburn going to be a pharmacist. I got a wife, my wife works at the Miracle (Medical) Center.

Q: What states have you worked in your 19-year career?

A: Let’s see, Connecticut, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee.

Q: You work all over the country.

A: Pretty much.

Q: You’re a non-union crane guy?

A: Yes.

Q: How many of you all are there in the country?

A: There ain’t no telling. There’s probably 20,000, but they’re spread out like Texas. I could leave here today. I could quit right now and just drive to Louisiana or Texas and before I get through either one of them, I can have 10 jobs. They’re that in demand down on the Gulf Coast, ’cause of all the chemical plants and stuff. They want to hire everybody with (certification from the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators).

Q: That’s the gold standard?

A: Used to be anybody could walk in — Joe could walk in as a crane operator. Now, you gotta have your (certification). You take an engineer test that’s wrote up by engineers and you gotta pass their exam, but that still don’t make you a crane operator, that just gets you a job. A crane operator is made from the seat and years of experience. It’s not made from just passing a test.

Q: You got the best view in Columbus, Ga., don’t ya?

A: Yeah, I’d say the second day I was here, I watched Fort Benning jump from the jump stations. I can see the jump stations. ... Yeah. I can see the top of Aflac and wave at Ben when he flies in.

Q: Who’s Ben?

A: Ben Affleck. (Laughter).

Q: You have no fear of heights, obviously?

A: Yeah, I don’t have fear, but I respect what I’m doing ’cause it’s a three-point contact thing. If you slip going up through there, you’ll know it or somebody’s gonna know it.

Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams

Ruben Hamby

Age: 44

Job: Crane operator

Hometown: Valley, Ala.

Current residence: Valley, Ala.

Education: Beulah High School, 1991. Certified through the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators.

Previous jobs: Has worked construction jobs since he was in high school.

Family: Wife, Kelly; daughters Ashley and Allis; son Austin.