A steep climb to his catbird seat puts crane operator Matt Haider high above Seattle streets and right at the center of a major construction boom.
Nearly 200 feet above a busy South Lake Union street, Matt Haider is calmly swinging several tons of concrete with his construction crane, making sure not to touch the live power lines below or get distracted by the seaplanes buzzing by.
It took him about 10 minutes to make the arduous climb up an open-air ladder into his cab, a “little box” that serves as his office for up to 12 hours straight. He’s brought a backpack of supplies like food and water, and isn’t looking forward to nature calling.
He can see the whole city from up here — the changing skyline, the dozens of other tower cranes flying through the air — but he can’t afford to spend much time soaking in the view.
Bursts of wind could rock his cab so much he’ll have to shut down for the day, as they did during last weekend’s windstorm. Warning stickers plastered around the cab show stick figures getting electrocuted or facing other mayhem, serving as constant reminders of potential danger.
“Some people think they can do it, and then they actually try to come up here,” says Haider, 38. It’s “something not everybody can do.”
With constant construction transforming Seattle, crane operators — though out of sight — have some of the most visible workplaces in the city.
But what’s it actually like to be up there? To find out, we joined Haider up in his cab during a recent work shift as he helped assemble a mid-rise residential tower on Dexter Avenue North.
The first thing you need to do to operate a crane is climb fearlessly — the journey up might stretch as much as 70 stories, the equivalent of ascending the Space Needle, and then some.
Because of the climb, Haider, 38, stays up in his cab for his entire shift, typically 8 to 12 hours, before making the two-hour drive home to his wife and two teenage boys in Granite Falls.
He says the most common question people have is how he goes to the bathroom up there. He doesn’t have much of a choice but to bring up a bottle and hope for the best. (Some crews do run a hose from the crane cab down to a port-a-potty, but Haider doesn’t have such luxury accommodations.)
The bulk of the job itself is fairly straightforward: Haider starts his day bright and early doing inspections, making sure bolts are tightened and the equipment is running smoothly. He then settles into a captain’s chair with two joystick-like devices on each armrest that control the crane. A computer screen reports details on the lift, like the weight and current height of the cargo.
A radio keeps him connected to the crews on the ground, called bellmen, that hook up concrete buckets, rebar, lumber or equipment to be lifted by his crane.
The cab shakes like a rickety subway car as he pivots around, and on windy days, it’s harrowing: Any gusts above 30 or 40 mph could shut down the job entirely, called a “blowout.” Ditto for fog, which can prevent Haider from seeing more than 10 feet in front of him.
But Seattle’s rainy days don’t bother him: His cab, decorated with giant Seahawks flags on both sides, has windshield wipers on the front glass.
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Unlike most physically intensive construction jobs, the crane-operator position becomes all mental after the daily climb. That makes Haider, known around the job site as a low-talking, tranquil presence, a good fit.
“At first, it’s pretty stressful,” he says calmly while swinging a bucket of concrete, his cab wobbling as it turns from a stunning view of Lake Union back toward the downtown skyline. “You have to be super-focused all the time.”
Not everyone has that even-keeled mentality: Some crane operators are such prima donnas that they get fired midway through the job, said Nick Amaya, construction superintendent for Exxel Pacific, the contractor for Haider’s current job.
“Crane operators think they’re running the show,” Amaya said.
The job is a big responsibility. There have been accidents, most notably a decade ago when a Bellevue crane tipped over because of a design flaw, killing one person.
Some crane operators go to specialty school or learn on training cranes like the ones set up in an open area in Ellensburg.
But Haider was fortunate enough, after working in construction for 15 years, to become an apprentice under a crane operator who let him learn how to use the machine during lunch breaks and after work. The job also requires an industry certification.
“You start at the bottom, literally, and work your way up,” he said. He’s been operating cranes for five years and hopes to do it until he retires.
The union position, with good benefits and retirement package, pays about $41 an hour. Based on a normal 40-hour workweek, that adds up to about $85,000 a year, although operators can exceed 60 hours a week.
Despite the current shortage of operators as Seattle sees a surging number of cranes, Haider said he hasn’t “had any headhunters calling” and doesn’t get paid above the base union scale. That’s fine for him.
“It’s like you’re in your own little world, doing your own thing all day,” he said. “It’s the coolest job I’ve ever had.”