'Once you're up, you're up': The elevated world of Block 9 crane operators

Justin Beauchane operates a tower crane Thursday, Jan. 10, at a height of 238 feet at the Block 9 construction site in downtown Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

FARGO — Work areas come in all varieties, but the spaces two men occupy on the Block 9 tower construction site downtown are wildly different than most.

Jeff Jerde, 53, and Justin Beauchane, 41, operate the two large cranes being used to build the $117 million, 234-foot high-rise backed by the R.D. Offutt Company and Gov. Doug Burgum’s Kilbourne Group.

Their jobs are to move heavy equipment and materials from one spot to another at the site along Broadway and Second Avenue North.

“It’s not as easy as it looks,” Jerde said with a laugh, before the men started their workday on Thursday, Jan. 10.

Keith Leier, project manager for the Kilbourne Group, said it’s a crucial function because they’re not able to use forklifts or other transport machinery. “On a tight site like that, there’s not a lot of room to move,” Leier said.

The men's climb to their tower crane cabs begins before sunrise, usually around 6:30 a.m. It takes 15 minutes or so to get to the top — almost 300 feet in the air for Jerde and about 240 feet for Beauchane.

Both employees of general contractor McGough Construction, they start fulfilling requests of the 10 subcontractors on the ground, moving from one “pick” to the next.

As the Block 9 project grows in height, the cranes could play another important role. If a worker suffers an injury, at a point before stairs or elevators are installed, a crane and a bucket would be used to lift that person to safety.

Two tower cranes operate Friday, Jan. 11, at the Block 9 construction site in downtown Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
‘A rocking effect’

Up in the cab, each man is seated in a chair that leans forward, to a degree, so they can see the construction site below.

The controls are heat sensitive, Jerde said, the crane’s version of a safety feature known as a “dead man’s switch.” If the operator fainted or had a heart attack, for example, the machine would shut down, he said.

They don’t get dizzy or scared up in the cab, but their work gets a little tricky when the wind picks up. Wind speed and direction dictate how smoothly they can move materials.

People on the ground may not notice, but the cranes sway in the wind. “You get a rocking effect,” Beauchane said.

The crane operators continue to work in a stiff breeze, but when winds get in the neighborhood of 40 mph, they usually shut down until conditions improve.

This is the view from atop the tallest crane at work on the Block 9 project in downtown Fargo. Erik Mattheis / WDAY
Justin Beauchane operates a tower crane Thursday, Jan. 10, at a height of 238 feet at the Block 9 construction site in downtown Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Human necessities

Being in a small space hundreds of feet in the air all day makes attending to basic human needs much more challenging.

A tower crane operator has access to a portable toilet in the cab, because climbing down for a regular bathroom break would take far too much time.

“Once you’re up, you’re up, until you come down at the end of the day,” Beauchane said.

When it comes to lunch, they have the option of “ordering in” from any local establishment that delivers. Once the order is placed and the food shows up on site, the container or bag is attached to a lanyard.

“We fly it up. We can hook it on our block, get it up to the window, and we pull it in,” Jerde said.

Beauchane drives back and forth from Walcott, N.D., for work every day, while Jerde, who lives in Watertown, Minn., stays at a local hotel.

Crane operator Jeff Jerde walks to work Thursday, Jan. 10, at the Block 9 construction site in downtown Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
A big kid’s dream

The tower crane operators use radios to talk with workers below, who help coordinate the picking up and dropping off of materials.

“It’s a challenge to see them all the time, so you have to trust ... that they’re giving you the right signals,” Beauchane said.

And, because the crane operators themselves can’t always see each other, they have their own radio system for warning when one will swing into another’s space.

Leier said their efficient work helps crews on the ground continue to progress, on schedule.

Currently, the 75 employees on site are focused on the project's foundation, but in a few weeks, they’ll be moving onto above-ground work.

It’s serious business — keeping safety at the forefront and trying to keep the Block 9 high-rise on schedule for a fall 2020 completion.

Still, the job is like a big kid’s dream, at times.

“I’m doing what I love, and I get to play with equipment every day,” Beauchane said.