The high life of a Melbourne crane driver

RACV RoyalAuto magazine

Charlie Santullo, a Melbourne crane driver

Charlie Santullo lives in the clouds. Every day, he dons his hard hat and rides a breezy, open-air cage elevator into the sky. He walks across the roof of a skyscraper under construction and climbs into a cramped cabin, head-spinningly high over Melbourne.

Charlie drives a crane.

Next time you’re in or near the city centre, look up. Count the cranes. Note the different sorts: cranes perched on top of half-finished buildings, or somehow emerging from the side of a building, or ones that actually ‘caterpillar climb’ the inside of the building as it rises into the air.

A small army of workers drive these cranes, a specialist skill requiring technique and mostly nerve. “We’ve got the sky to ourselves up here,” Charlie smiles.

The day RoyalAuto visited 13-year RACV member Charlie’s worksite, what he would call a low-level breeze was whistling across the construction site, 38 storeys above the street. It was a minor hurricane to nervous writers and photographers lacking a crane-driver’s altitude-training. As our knees shook, the Royal Exhibition Building looking like a toy model way below, Charlie cheerfully played ‘doggie’ (directing the crane from the rooftop as his colleague Marko Zizic sat in the crane’s cabin, driving) while workmates Bear and Dougie were hoisted into thin air above the massive drop, to tinker with some part of the super structure.

On trust

“It’s all about trust, this job,” Charlie says. “Trust in the equipment and in the driver, and in each other. We can have three cranes working alongside each other on the one job. You need to trust one another.”

The crane crew work alongside all the other specialists who create a modern building: chippies, concreters, plumbers, sparkies, glaziers, steel-fixers and optic-fibre installers, to name a few. The technologies are wild, from loading bays that can be inserted into the side of a building, loaded with equipment (you’ll see them, sticking out like place-holders, from the high floors of buildings under construction) to the self-climbing foundations of a 100-tonne crane.

Charlie used to be a ship builder and then spent some time in demolition, knocking down old buildings to make way for new. But then he joined the people who make fresh buildings, big ones, rise out of those giant holes in the ground around the city. For two decades,

Charlie has never been out of work and, standing recently on the roof of a tall work-in-progress at 36 La Trobe Street, soon to be known as the Trillium Apartments, looking out over more than a dozen other cranes dotting the skyline, it seems that he won’t be worrying about a pay cheque any time soon. He has driven or ‘dogged’ cranes on something like 200 buildings.

Weather wise

But it’s not an easy life, up there, way above the streets where the rest of us walk or drive. When storms arrive or the wind gets up, the working conditions change quickly and dramatically. “The wind spins the loads around a bit,” Charlie says, casually. Crane crews are constantly judging load amounts and balances, chain capacities and other moment-to-moment physics. Often a crane driver can’t physically see the load, somewhere down over the edge of the building, and relies on the ‘doggie’ for guidance, or must feel for when to ‘catch’ a swinging load.

Once the wind is howling past 38 knots (aka 72km/h, or 20 metres per second), the crane has to stop work, but imagine for a moment what it’s like when the gale is sitting at 35 knots, just under the threshold. Charlie and his mates are routinely lifting air-conditioning units weighing many tonnes or, when we visited, 13-tonne wall panels, out into the sky directly above La Trobe Street. A really strong wind could flip the six-tonne boom of a wrongly placed crane, but all you need is for the load to start swinging, to have a situation developing.

‘You’re in trouble’

“You always sound confident for your driver. As soon as he hears ‘that note’ in your voice, you’re in trouble,” Charlie says. “No matter how serious things are, I sound like I haven’t got a worry in the world because if he hears stress or panic in my voice, that’s not going to help at all.”

Lightning is another hazard, and the driver has to exit the seat and get away from the crane as soon as a storm looms. The crew might get a phone call from another crane, out across the CBD, warning Charlie and co that bad weather is heading their way, everybody looking out for one another in the sky. Project manager on the La Trobe site, Built’s Luke Cefai, estimated that the job had lost about 20 per cent of potential crane time because of weather, be it rain, heat or wind speed, since main construction started in mid-February last year.

For Charlie and his mates, losing time is a major stress. There are financial penalties for the company if a construction falls behind, so lost weather hours mean overtime and long hours for the crane crew, which sounds great financially but isn’t necessarily good for relationships or family life.

“You’re practically married to the crane,” Charlie says. “You do get good money, doing this job, but it’s a lot of hours, and there are a lot of divorces. You have to make a lot of sacrifices and we try to cover for one another when a kid has a birthday or something.”

In the clouds

But for all these headaches, it’s an amazing place to work and one that most of us can’t imagine. Asked what the view is like from the driver’s seat of a crane, Charlie pulls out his mobile phone and shows a grainy shot of the top of a grey cloud, as though looking out an aeroplane window. Except that poking through the cloud are the top few floors of the Eureka Tower, the Rialto and a few other very high buildings. It might be the most breathtaking photo from a crappy phone camera this reporter has ever seen. For Charlie and co, it’s another day at the office.

Back on Earth, the rest of us have no idea.

Story: Nick Place
Photos: Meredith O’Shea
Published in RoyalAuto Mar 2017