Crane Accidents

Dying at Lunch

01/17/03

Written by Rick Raef and used here with permission.

One of the privileges growing up as a construction kid in the ’60′s was that I got to ride around the jobs with the foremen for Dad’s company. I’ll never forget the day I was about 9 years old, when I had been passed off to a gruff ‘ol dirt superintendent named Walt for a few hours. Of course I had my little hard hat and lunch box, and it was a big deal for me to have lunch with the rest of the guys without Dad being anywhere around.

Walt drove up to the dirt spread crew who had just settled down for lunch in the shade of the Cat scrapers they were running. Hiding behind his dark glasses and silver aluminum hard hat, it was hard to know whether Walt was in a good mood or not.

Usually it was a pretty good bet that he wasn’t.

It was a day that was well over 100 degrees, so the crew started early and lunch was at 11 o’clock. Typical of a scraper spread, there wasn’t a shade tree within 50 miles.

When Walt got out of the pickup he wasn’t very friendly. He barked at the crew to get away from those scrapers and to never lean up against those tires when they were warm as they had a habit of blowing the split rim. “They could kill a man in an instant” he snapped.

Even a 9-year-old kid could tell Walt didn’t make any friends as he forced the crew to eat their lunch out in the hot sun away from the scrapers.

I didn’t say a word as we drove away because he seemed pretty mad. We drove to the other end of the job in silence and parked under a huge fig tree where an old ranch house had once stood. We opened both doors on the pickup and started to eat.

“Them things got a killing range of 500 ft” Walt muttered after several minutes to no one in particular.

Of course for a 9-year-old kid, there was no way to resist the temptation to eat all the goodies in my lunch before noon. So when it came time for lunch, all I had left was a hard-boiled egg and an apple. Of course Walt being the Big Boss, he packed a lunch box that Mrs. Walt fixed like a Christmas dinner. Behind those dark glasses and wrinkled face I think I caught the hint of a smile as he shared with me the culinary creations of a seasoned construction wife. Walt might have been sort of a grump, but from the things I discovered at the bottom of his lunch pail, he married an angel who was a direct descendent from Betty Crocker heaven.

Twenty years and 5 States later I was pulling job site safety duties on a 20 mile canal job in Colorado when I drove up on our scraper hands just as they were getting ready for lunch. Sure enough, everybody was getting comfortable and leaning up against the warm tires of the 657′s. Unlike Walt, I used a little diplomacy and got the crew to move away from the scrapers. There was some grumbling, but I promised the guys I’d drive back down the canal with my company truck and drag up the sled with the shade covered table for them. It would only take a few minutes.

I hadn’t quite reached the sled when I got a frantic call over the company radio: One of the scraper tires had exploded.

Thanks to my moving the crew just minutes before, no one was killed or injured. But it’s a day I will never forget. Just like I will never forget the day almost 40 years ago when a gruff ‘old superintendent taught a 9 year old kid a lesson that years later would save someone’s life.

In our investigation of the Colorado accident, we found a 25-lb. piece of shrapnel from the tire’s split rim a quarter of a mile from where the scraper was parked.

Today August 5, 2002 is a day that will not be forgotten in the minds of many that were working at a Home Depot construction site in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Crews were working on a concrete tilt-up panel job. When it came time for lunch, as they have done many times before, the crew leaned up against one of the panels in the shade.

What they didn’t know was that the panel they were leaning against had the braces removed but had yet to be secured to the roof by another contractor crew.

Without warning, the 30 ft wide, 20-ft high wall began to lean. In an instant the wall fell on the unsuspecting crew killing three. Six others were able to scramble to safety.

We could have written this bulletin about the need to co-ordinate subcontractors in tilt-up panel work to prevent panels being left unsecured, but that point is obvious. And to some WCSN readers it may seem a little silly to talk about “lunch time safety”.

But take it from someone who learned from a grouchy old superintendent a long time ago. Being a boss means we have to take care of our people. That includes making sure they have a decent place to eat lunch away from things that could fall or explode even if everyone else on the job thinks it will never happen. It also assures construction wives like Mrs. Walt that they will have their husbands around to enjoy their lunch time goodies for many years to come. And it guarantees years of lunch pail adventures for construction kids who someday hope to grow up and be just like the Big Boss.

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