The whole lot smelled of diesel, mud, rubber and rain. Brandon Leary, a crane operator for Crowley Maritime, delicately extended the hydraulic lift on the dull yellow crane, lowering the round weight onto a wood platform.
Bill Elmore swung his right arm horizontally, raindrops pinging from his hardhat. Leary was done with the practical exam for his crane certification and could stop the crane was all said in one hand signal.
Bill Elmore, a 30-year veteran of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation who has operated cranes all over Alaska, teaches classes to current and aspiring crane operators at Alaska Crane Consultants, his business on Liberty Lane off Kalifornsky Beach Road. It’s hard to miss, with four different types of cranes sitting idle in the front yard.
“I originally did this for ASRC, then I sort of split off and started doing it myself,” Bill Elmore said. “We provide (the national certification) training and prep for these men to take their written and practical exams for national certification.”
Bill and Teresa Elmore, who have both lived in Alaska since the 1960s, founded the business two years ago to meet the growing need for certified crane operators, she said. They currently offer approximately six crane-specific classes a year as well as rigger and signalperson classes, as well as offering practice time on the cranes.
“Two years ago, we bought this property and started building here because there’s a demand,” Teresa Elmore said. “At that time, we were the only one in the state of Alaska that was doing crane certification.”
Before 2010, crane operators could be trained to do their job with no additional requirements. However, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a rule in February 2010 that required all crane operators to be nationally certified in their particular type of crane. OSHA issued a three-year extension on the requirement in 2014, but the cutoff date will come in 2017.
The certifications are valid for five years and have to be conducted by an independent, accredited auditor, according to OSHA. The tests also require practical exams, where test-takers must perform tasks with an actual crane.
There are only a few places to do this in Alaska — currently, Alaska Crane Operators, a consultant in Anchorage and another in Palmer are the only options, according to the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators. Alaska Crane Consultants is the only brick-and-mortar location where crane operators can come to use the business’s machinery in Alaska — the other two practical testers are consultants, who can come to a company’s facilities to use their equipment, Teresa Elmore said.
“Before, you didn’t need to be certified,” Teresa Elmore said. “Now, the laws and the regulations for the government are changing to such extent that for safety, they want nationally certified crane operators.”
Bill Elmore teaches the classes at the company’s home facility but also does site-based certification, where he travels to a company’s location and trains the workers there. The company will set up the class ahead of time, but because it is more cost efficient to fly the teachers there than the many students to Kenai, Bill and Teresa Elmore will go to places like King Salmon, Alaska, to certify students, Teresa Elmore said.
The potential coming of the LNG plant to Nikiski and expansion of oil and gas assets in the Cook Inlet puts them in a good position for business expansion as well, Bill Elmore said.
“I’ve been in a good spot for a few years, since they mandated the certification,” Bill Elmore said. “In a slow time in the industry right now, I’m still excited to see this many people come in for the training because we know they’re preparing for what’s coming.”
Many of the students in the class are already employed as crane operators. The companies will sometimes pay for them to be certified, as it is now a national requirement, Teresa Elmore said.
However, others sign up to expand their skill sets. James Arness, a student who currently works for the Homer Electric Association, said he attended the class to learn to operate a crane. Having a crane operator around to take apart the turbines could be helpful for the company, he said.
“I’d be using it for something that is small-scale,” Arness said. “Turbines are heavy, but they’re not heavy in the crane world.”
The October class had students from multiple industries and across Alaska, Bill Elmore said.
“We’ve got about every industry represented in here, from the oil companies to the U.S. government,” Bill Elmore said. “They’re from everywhere. And that’s the way every test seems to be — we gather them up from everywhere.”
Bill Elmore walks the class through the safety and regulatory requirements for operating cranes in general. The students must take written and practical exams for each type of crane they will be certified on.
“Are you smarter than a fifth-grader? Then you can come in and pass the written test,” Bill Elmore said. “But it doesn’t make you a crane operator until you can prove it to us and pass the practical exam.”
The certification requirement signals a change in attitude for many companies — injuries cost money and can make them lose contracts, so they are more focused on safety than they used to be, Bill Elmore said.
“When they built the Golden Gate bridge, they used to calculate that they were going to kill so many people,” he said. “These days, the guys looking to hire the company will look at the safety record and say, ‘Hey, you’re killing guys,’ and not hire them.”
Leary, who has been certified before but took the NCCCO test for the first time last week, said many companies are looking for operators who are certified before they hire them. A 30-year crane operator who has worked in locations such as Bethel and Kotzebue, Leary said he has seen the industry grow from practical knowledge-based to more regulated and certified.
Though the technology has grown, many aspects of safety still rely on the skill of the operator, Bill Elmore said. Those coming into machine operation now will be used to cranes with more safety technology, but even the older crane operators have to be certified, he said.
“It’s about getting everybody on the same level,” Bill Elmore said.