20:31 PM

Doing the heavy lifting-the job of a crane operator on the Airport expansion project

(Sept. 14, 2015) - Jim Waliga Jr. sits in the small cab of a 220-ton Manitowoc crane on the east side of Tampa International Airport’s Main Terminal and delicately nudges a lever with his fingertips. The engine revs up and hydraulic pumps churn into action. Before him, a massive 60-foot beam weighing 17,000 pounds floats into the air.Crane operator Jim Waliga

Waliga swings the boom around until the steel is positioned over the outdoor terrace decks – a key element of the Airport’s historic expansion. Trained spotters call out commands and signal precise movements to guide the beam. Everyone knows that, for crane operators, even the smallest slip up can be dangerous.

“It’s nerve-racking,” said Waliga, 52. “It’s not a very physical job, but it’s very stressful. You have a lot of lives in your hands.”

It’s something that Waliga and the other crane operators working on the Airport construction site take very seriously.

A certified crane operator through the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators, Waliga has worked for All Crane Rental for more than a decade. But his work on cranes dates back much longer.

As an ironworker at his father’s steel fabrication business, Waliga said he started using the crane for small jobs around age 16. After going to college, he eventually transitioned to a crane operator at age 25. He’s been doing it ever since.

He thought the air conditioned cab – and the money that came with it – looked like a good alternative to the grind of life as an ironworker.

As he found out, the job of crane operator comes with a much different set of challenges. There’s the major one: Being responsible for lifting so much, often with workers nearby. There’s the weather: Monitoring storms, sun in the eyes, wind pushing and pulling material as it flies through the air. Then there’s the more mundane: Sitting, hour after hour, in a seat without getting up to move.

He always must be on his game. Waliga said operating a crane requires being keenly aware of all his senses. He must constantly look, listen, feel and smell for any issues.

“You go home and you’re exhausted from the mental aspect of it,” he said.

But Waliga says it is all worth it.

“I enjoy it,” he said. “It’s an awesome feeling to lift thousands of pounds with the tips of your fingers. It’s an adrenaline rush.”

Tampa International Airport’s project, especially. Because of the configuration of the cranes, much of the work -- about 90 percent, Waliga estimates -- is done out of sight. Also, the outdoor terraces are complex from a structural steel perspective, with steel beams that need to be placed in hard-to-reach places.

“It’s one of the most complicated jobs I’ve been on,” he said.

Waliga has been impressed with the quality of people working on the job, however, and said that Skanska USA Building and their subcontractor, Morrow Steel, have brought their A teams.