Crane Operations from the Crane Operator’s View

As a crane operator, I have the privilege of getting to work with the best and the worst climbers in the industry. This is neither a boast nor a complaint. It’s a simple summary of observations I’ve made during the last 24 years of my career.

I tell my operators, “The longer they take, the more we make.” This is usually used to settle the frustrations of one of my operators feeling the job is going too slowly. It can be difficult for the crane operator to work with a different crew every day. We have to master the ability to run at different people’s paces and keep them happy, whether that means going fast or slow in our perception.

Removing trees with a crane is the most dangerous thing a crane operator can be asked to do. The operator must deal with several unknown variables, including the weights of the pieces being picked and another person’s abilities to both rig and cut proficiently. To the latter point, I have determined people often are either over-confident in their skills or just don’t know when they have cut something completely through.

I could not put a number on how many times I’ve been told, “Cable up, it’s all yours!” as I watched the weight increase on my scale, knowing the piece had not been cut all the way through. Yet I second-guessed myself the whole time wondering if I just grossly underestimated the weight. This is despite that, in my 20-plus years of doing this every day, I have become “pretty OK” at estimating the weight of a piece of wood.

Still, removing trees with a crane is like a tightrope walk 100 feet in the air with no safety net.

Removing trees with a crane is the most dangerous thing a crane operator can be asked to do. The operator must deal with several unknown variables. All photos courtesy of the author.

LMI systems

Let me dispose of some of the misconceptions about crane load-moment-indicator (LMI) systems and their ability to keep you safe. LMIs are aids for the operator to help stay within the parameters of the crane’s load chart. The scale is not an exact measuring device giving precise weights instantly. For it to work, it must pick up the object.

The first hurdle in tree work is that you start at the top of a tree, possibly 100 feet in the air. For traditional, non-tree-related crane picks, you are picking something either off a roof or off the ground. Generally speaking, the worst thing that could happen if the item is too heavy in those situations is that the crane won’t be able to pick it up. With tree work, it’s 100% commitment as soon as the climber cuts the piece free.

The LMI system is designed to keep the operator in the range of the load chart. In essence, it really is just the alarm to let you know you just overloaded the crane. It is a reactionary device and cannot stop the operator from making a mistake. Once you have overloaded the crane, the LMI’s method of protection is to try to not allow you to make the situation worse.

The way it does this is by locking the crane out of the functions that would increase the problem. The operator will lose the ability to cable up, boom down and scope out. Rotation is not affected, although some cranes do have a different over-the-side or over-the-rear chart that could become a problem or increase the problem.

As I understand it, knuckle-boom cranes operate similarly, with the addition of cutting operating speeds down to possibly 10%. I do not love the idea of having my options to get out of the situation reduced. I do understand the idea the engineers were going for to try to help prevent damage. Difficulty arises when your only option is to put a piece down or bring it closer to you and the computer doesn’t know if there is a house or a person or any other object in the way.

The bigger issue is, no crane was designed for tree work. We have adapted them to do tree work. Their design is simply to pick things up and put them down. Knuckle booms have some attachments designed for tree work (grapple saws), but they, too, are just cranes designed to pick static loads of known weights at known distances.

Once you have overloaded the crane, the LMI’s method of protection is to try to not allow you to make the situation worse.

Climber limitations

The next observation I have made is that we have created a generation of climbers who don’t like to climb. They know how to rappel, rig and cut well, but there are some who I’ve never seen go up on their own, only down. I fully understand the theory of “Why take the stairs when the elevator comes to you?” but there have been many times when, after taking the first piece, the crane cannot get into the interior of the tree due to overhead obstructions. The two options then are for the climber to climb up and get to where the crane can reach them, or climb to where they can rig the next pick. More often than not, climbers will rappel to the ground to take the ride back up to the top and then work their way down again.

I’m not calling anyone lazy. Climbing is a difficult job that I personally would not want to do. I’m just reporting what I have observed on the job. I have seen climbers scoot down a limb on their butts, and I have witnessed climbers make some of the biggest swings and stick ultra-precision landings.

Risking a $500,000 piece of equipment to possibly gain a $2,000 invoice is not a great return, but it is what we do every day when we go to work.

Saying “no”

Another difficulty comes when I get to a job that I have not seen before arriving and have to tell the crew there is no safe way I can assist with the removal, for whatever reason it may be. Power lines, terrain and distance are all common issues. Often, they ask me, “Well, how are we supposed to do it then?” The older I get, the easier it is for me to tell them, “I’m sorry, but that’s your job to figure out. There is nothing I can safely do here.”

The days of the cowboy operators are long gone. We should all be realizing it’s not worth the risk. I was looking at a job recently and, after telling them I couldn’t set up on the edge of the riverbank, was told by the salesperson I met there, “What do you care if you dump the crane in the river, it’s not yours.” I then took the opportunity to explain that, actually, it is my crane, and I would never intentionally risk my equipment or anyone’s safety simply to do their job.

Risking a $500,000 piece of equipment to possibly gain a $2,000 invoice is not a great return, but it is what we do every day when we go to work. We need to be diligent in picking and choosing our risks; the job is dangerous enough, we don’t need to take extra chances.

I can remember early in my career when I was talked into laying over a log that should have been two picks or just felled whole. After the arborist really messed up his notch, and probably his back cut, I remember being asked to just wiggle it, maybe it would break. Not knowing any better, I gave it all I could. It wiggled a bit, it cracked a bit, then it popped a bit. It popped right off the stump and, with gravity having a firm grasp on it, started coming over fast. I could feel I might be coming over with it, and in an act of self-preservation, I cabled down as fast as I could.

When everything settled and I was still standing upright, I heard clapping behind me. The neighbor was watching the whole thing and told me how great I was. He said when those pads lifted up off the wooden blocks, I put the pads back down right in the middle of them again. Not exactly the performance I was trying to give that day, and I wouldn’t even attempt it today.

Now I would insist on two picks – if not three – that I would be confident I could handle, or I’d tell them they can fell it on their own. I will gladly lay some straps on the ground so we can cut it and rig it after it’s horizontal. Once it’s that way, the worst that could happen is I don’t pick it up. We can minimize our risk. Nobody ever died from taking too small a piece.


The number of good climbers I’ve been able to work with was what inspired us to start the Crane Safety Climber School. I couldn’t figure out why some climbers made it look so easy and others made me want to walk off the job and never look back. It became clear that we needed to show people what we have been successful with, as well as share our failures. Talking about what we tried that didn’t work is often a better lesson than talking about our perfect picks.

I feel that the day we start training is day one on the job. And it should continue to the last day on the job. In all my years of doing this, I’ve never taken down the same tree twice.

Stay focused and stay safe.

Peter Nieves-Sosa is president of The Crane Man, Inc., a 12-year TCIA member company based in Chalfont, Pennsylvania, and founder of the Crane Safety Climber School, now in its 12th year.

This article was based on his presentation on the same subject during TCI EXPO ’21 in Indianapolis, Indiana. To listen to an audio recording for that presentation, go to this page in the digital version of this issue of TCI Magazine online at and, under the Resources tab, click Audio. Or, under the Current Issue tab, click View Digimag, then go to this page and click here.

1 Comment

  1. The voice of experience… And a great crane operator. Back before all these companies decided to buy their own cranes, they all wanted Pete. He makes the job easy. Just do what he says and try to learn something.

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