Crane Training, When Does It Begin and End?

Before running a new piece of equipment, we read the operator’s manual. That’s the first step in figuring out how anything works, correct? I would say training begins day one for any job or task we choose. Some tasks may take longer and be more in depth than others. Some require continuing education or updates.

Talking with students about the choice of cut used on a tree
Mike Teti, far right, talking with students about the choice of cut used on a piece at Crane Safety Climber School 2023. All photos courtesy of the author.

Think about our industry, constantly evolving. New tools, new equipment and new products every year. Sometimes, it’s just a new way to use a device that’s been around for years. We are innovators, and therefore need constant training.

“If I have seen further, it is by
standing on the shoulders of giants.”

– Sir Isaac Newton

Look around. We are in an industry of giants, or, rather, people I would call giant slayers. Look at the list of presenters at TCI EXPO every year. These men and women are eager to share their experiences with anyone willing to listen. Let me tell you, we can all learn from one another, especially from our and others’ mistakes.

This is a huge part of my company’s annual Crane Safety Climber School. We have trainers who have been there and done that. The groundwork has been laid, and we don’t need to repeat mistakes, rather we learn from them and move on. Each and every one of us has the ability to go further and be safer simply by starting from where we have gotten to as an industry, by not starting from the beginning every time.

Crane Safety Climber School
Russell Hrycyk, instructor at Crane Safety Climber School 2023, watching a student set rigging
So, when does training begin?

In the tree industry, we put a lot of emphasis on seat time, judging experience level just from a time perspective. I have often seen a new operator or climber perform a task much better than a seasoned one. Time alone does not make us better. What we do with our time does.

I also have heard people advise not to work with a new operator. I enjoy working with and helping new climbers and operators. It may put me in a little more attentive posture knowing I’m working with someone less experienced, but everyone has to start somewhere.

“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and,
most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”
– Pelé, soccer great

Learning curve

When I train new operators, I start with a demonstration. Then repetitive motion activities. For an operator, it must be second nature to pull the correct handle to perform a crane function.

Students at Crane Safety Climber School 2021
Jim Roach explains rigging choices to students at Crane Safety Climber School 2021.

The first thing that needs to be mastered is setup. A good or bad setup can make or break a crane job. This means knowing the best position for the task and placing the crane in the optimal spot for picking and setting. Also, being able to level the crane on uneven terrain is key. We do not get perfect scenarios often. Our customers expect us to be able to do these things quickly, as they are paying by the hour.

For tree work, there is another learning curve for both the crane operator and climber – weights of pieces being picked. You need to know species for both weight and the way the wood will react. A good arborist should be able to help educate a crane operator on these points, while a good operator will diligently convey the weights the machine is seeing during the job. Constant communication is helpful. You can never have too much information.

When I get a call from a new crane-work customer, it’s usually obvious by all the questions of who brings what to the job. I have told them, “As long as your climber can climb and listen to instructions, we will get through the job.” Now, that is with myself or my operators; it could be very different with another company.

Rope sling selection at Crane Safety Climber School 2023
Crane operator/instructor Mike Livingston explaining the rope sling selection at Crane Safety Climber School 2023.
Think differently

Climbers working with cranes for the first time have to think differently. What normally goes down is now picked up. Rigging points are usually different, as we’re looking for balance points, not hinge points or swing room.

Start small and allow yourself safe exit paths. Once you see what can be done, increase from there, but always allow room for error. You never want to be pushed to your limit, nor push the crane to its limit.
I don’t feel that training ever ends. Only our role in it will cease when we decide to stop participating.

Learning from failures

Sometimes, the best teacher is failure. These do not only have to be our own failures. We can learn from others’ mistakes. In order to do so, we have to create a culture that doesn’t just share our wins. We need to let people see our failures as well. As much as we enjoy watching Facebook, TikTok or Instagram highlight reels, I feel we also can use these platforms to share our less-than-perfect experiences as well as our successes.

Doug Muth, instructor, Crane Safety Climber School 2022
Doug Muth, instructor, talking to a student at Crane Safety Climber School 2022.

If we share something that didn’t work, it may prevent someone else from trying it tomorrow. You could possibly save someone’s life just by letting them know you already tried that – and it didn’t work!
Functions and limits

When dealing with cranes, be aware they all have only four functions: cable up or down, boom up or down, telescope in and out and rotate left and right. Operators can make the machines look very fluid by performing these functions together.

Know the limit for your equipment

All cranes have their limits, just like every piece of equipment. There is no one-size-fits-all. The biggest thing I would want you to remember is they all have a limit, an end of the chart. Whether it is an 18-ton crane or a 500-ton crane, it will have a point where it can pick no more.

The concept of “don’t pick up what you can’t put down” is important. This will typically come into play when you have a larger crane. You may be able to pick up the whole tree at once, but what will limit you? It could be the rigging you are using or the structure of the tree. Often, it is the landing zone you have to deal with. You may only have a small space to land pieces. Even though your capacity would allow for larger picks, it would not make sense to do so.

At the Crane Safety Climber School, we often say, “Nobody ever died from taking too small of a piece.” I also don’t believe you could rig or cut too perfectly. The nice part is, you always have the next pick to try again. With every step, you should be trying for perfection; every pick is another chance.

Have an alternate plan

I believe it was the 2017 Crane Safety Climber School at which we faced several challenges. The first day it rained every time we tried to come out of the classroom. Sometimes things are out of your control and you must have an alternate plan. It’s always a good idea to have a plan B, even if it never gets used.
Once we did get outside, one of my cranes was having an electrical issue. We were not sure if we would be able to use it. We had to call a friend for a favor. Then we got another crane on site to get things going.

Then, with a 30-year, seasoned veteran in the tree doing a demonstration pick, he dropped his saw 60 feet to the blacktop. He didn’t lose his cool, he just pulled up another saw and made his cut. While that is a humbling experience for the veteran climber, it was great for every student to see. At every level of experience, people make mistakes. Being able to recover from them is what makes some people stand out.

Train, train, train

When we first started Crane Safety Climber School, at the wrap-up discussion someone said, “What we learned here may save someone’s life.” That hit home for me. We as an industry need more hands-on training. It can be done on the job, but production must be sacrificed. It can be done at training events, but there are few out there. The training needs to stay relevant and up to date. As more equipment becomes available, we need more people who are able to use it and show others how to use it.

I would challenge everyone to view training differently. It is not just in the specified scenarios labeled training. But look at every day as practice, another chance to improve.

Training never ends, it all becomes cumulative experiences. Hopefully, we are able to learn from them.
Peter Nieves-Sosa is president of The Crane Man Inc., a 12-year TCIA corporate 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 ’22 in Charlotte, North Carolina. To listen to an audio recording of 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 click View Digimag, to go to this page.

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