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Seeing the world from a 153-foot perch above Eau Claire

In this Sept. 6, 2017, photo, crane operator Nick Michels prepares to climb down into the cab of the tower crane after making inspections at the construction site of the Confluence Center for the Arts in downtown Eau Claire, Wis. (Marisa Wojcik/The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram via AP)

The crane operator Nick Michels prepares on Sept. 6 to climb down into the cab of his tower crane after making inspections at the construction site of the Confluence Center for the Arts in downtown Eau Claire. (Marisa Wojcik/The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram via AP)

By ELIZABETH DOHMS
Leader-Telegram

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (AP) — Nick Michels begins every work day with a similar routine that always involves a trip to the bathroom.

It’s before the sun rises when he unlocks the door to the elevator shaft at the construction site of the Confluence Arts Center in downtown Eau Claire and grabs his portable urinal — a laundry-detergent jug — that he left there from the day before, the Leader-Telegram reported .

“That’s not laundry detergent,” he said. “You can use that to wash your clothes if you want, but they’re not smelling like Mountain Rain.”

He cleans it out in the bathroom. While there, Michels zips up his sweatshirt and tucks it into his jeans. Inside of it he stuffs his thermos, portable urinal and whatever food he packed into zip-locked bags.

Michels, 45, is a tower-crane operator employed by Industrial Construction Specialists in Eau Claire. Once he climbs the 153 handrails he needs to go up to reach his perch, chances are good he won’t come down until his work day is over.

He operates a Liebherr 320 crane with a load-carrying capacity of close to 14 tons. His job is to talk with crewmen on the ground who secure loads onto the hook that Michels sends down.

All members of the construction crew depend on the crane operator to do his job. At the Confluence site, he is most frequently in communication with masons, carpenters, general laborers and ironworkers.

“Without him, the project right now would come to a halt,” said Justin Geissler, a project manager at Eau Claire-based Market & Johnson, which is overseeing the construction of the $45 million performing arts center. “He’s an important part of that project.”

The hook is attached to a trolley that Michels can pull toward him or send out along a jib, a 234-foot horizontal arm that extends in front of Michels’ line of sight.

“All right, line down, trolley up about 12 feet,” an ironworker’s message rings out to Michels over a two-way radio on Friday.

“Line down would have you bring the load line down,” Michels explained as he maneuvered the lever in his right hand to drop the hook. “Everybody calls it a cable. It’s a wire rope, actually. Not a cable.”

Michels’ office is a 5-by-5-foot cabin that sits near the top of the crane tower that he climbs ever day. He’ll remain there until his shift ends at 4 or 5 p.m.

Inside the cab on either side of his operator chair is his trolley and hoist controls.

Michels drapes his sweatshirt over the back of his chair. Even with the air conditioner running inside the cab, it’s too hot to wear long sleeves. The windows can be opened, but Michels has learned that the fresh air isn’t worth trading off for the distractions that can be caused by bees flying in or outdoor noise.

He said the cab has blind spots in each of its corners. But its three windows, lying to his right, left and front, generally provide him with a good vantage point for looking down on the site.

Looking out over the Confluence project day after day, Michels is no longer particularly impressed by the sight. He has become all too used to his bird’s-eye view of downtown Eau Claire, the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa River and a horizon marked by a Banbury Place sign, brick buildings and tree lines. Much more than the scenery, his main concern is the safety of both his crewmen and himself.

Occasionally, something will catch his eye. To get a closer look, he’ll grab his binoculars from a nearby shelf. Oftentimes, it will be a crewman on the ground who is trying to tell Michels something using hand signals.

“Michels, you don’t happen to see a semi truck out there full of iron, do ya?” a voice says over the scanner.

“I do. It’s about 93 feet straight east, southeast of the tower,” he radios back.

“10-4.”

Michels is one of about 70 certified tower crane operators affiliated with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139 in Wisconsin, said Dan Sperberg, training director at the Wisconsin Operating Engineers Training Center near Coloma, south of Stevens Point. About 30 of them are now operating tower cranes.

Sperberg said people who are successful at this job have excellent communication abilities, can work well alone for extended periods and have good depth perception — something Michels struggled with for six weeks after he had eye surgery for a detached retina.

“People don’t get promoted to that job unless they have amazing work ethic,” Sperberg said.

With bricks built high around the large theater on the north side of the project site, Michels sometimes finds himself operating the crane “in the blind,” meaning can’t always see the load he’s delivering or picking up. At such times, he has to rely on a computerized display to get an idea of what’s happening outside.

“Bring it left six feet, two, alright trolley in, line it down, looking good,” an ironworker says over radio.

Communication is paramount between Michels and the crewmen on the ground, whom Michels mostly doesn’t know by name.

“Him saying ‘looking good’ means quite a bit,” Michels said. “Everything I hear on the radio means quite a bit. When I hear silence, I don’t know what’s happening, so I gotta stop operating. And that doesn’t make it smooth. It makes (the crane) jerk and bounce and everything. It’s not good.”

He keeps busy all day and can haul up to 18 to 20 loads if he’s working with the carpenters. That’s about as fast as the crane can operate.

Michels doesn’t have much spare time because he needs to keep a firm grip on the levers to avoid shutting off power to the crane. His hands might get sweaty, so he puts socks over the levers to absorb the moisture.

Michels has been operating cranes since about 2005, getting certified through an apprenticeship that required 6,000 hours of training. He completed it at Local 139’s training center near Coloma over the course of several winters.

“Right from the beginning, he took his career very seriously,” Sperberg said. “He was going to reach great heights.

Although Michels was near the bottom of his Chippewa Falls McDonell High School class, he outshined his fellow crane-operator trainees when awards were handed out for performance.

“If you’re interested in something, you pay attention,” he said.

He’s certified to operate all types of cranes with the exception of the indoor overhead crane.

Michels is quick to credit the union for helping him get employed in the only job he has taken an interest in.

“I’m very proud of the operating engineers,” Michels said. “It’s a strong union. It fights for the worker, and in a same sense it still fights for the contractor so they’ll be supplied with good help — highly trained and knowledgeable workers.”

Michels will be on the job for another few months. The Confluence center is scheduled to open in the fall of 2018.

While some men search for their next jobs constantly, Michels has kept plenty busy without keeping a keen eye on the industry’s new job prospects.

“If you work with people and learn to trust them, you want them on your next job,” Michels said. “God willing, I will retire doing this.”

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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