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Heavy Equipment Operation Resource Guide

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    The term heavy equipment refers to any heavy-duty machine that is used in the construction, mining or agricultural trades. These machines are frequently employed to accomplish earth-moving tasks, although they may be called upon for demolition, transportation, or agricultural harvesting duties. The purpose of this resource guide is to discuss the various types of commonly used heavy machinery on the market today, the role of the heavy equipment operator in today’s construction market, as well as a high level overview of how heavy equipment aids construction companies in completing jobs at peak efficiency.

    A variety of heavy equipment machinery is in operation today

    Heavy equipment generally falls into one of three main categories:

    Earth-moving machines – Earth-moving machines – these are what most people think of when heavy equipment is mentioned. Some of the most common earth-moving machines are excavators, bulldozers, wheel loaders and backhoes. Excavators are incredibly important to the construction trades because they enable a single operator to do the work of dozens of workers. Excavators are generally used to dig trenches for utility lines, irrigation systems, or foundation footings. The ability to dig a trench through hard, packed soil with minimal effort makes these machines indispensable for any construction crew.

    Even those in the landscaping industry have found that excavators provide a quick and efficient means of digging irrigation trenches, like those used for irrigation lines. In the hard-packed, clay soils of the American southwest, an excavator is a necessity for any construction firm that values productivity and efficiency.

    Bulldozers and backhoes are other earthmovers that are quite common on the construction site, as they enable a single operator to move massive amounts of dirt and loose materials with ease. A large bulldozer can frequently move more than twenty cubic yards of loose material in one pass, and a cubic yard alone may weigh more than a ton in some cases! The Caterpillar D6 is one of the most popular bulldozers on the market today, with the Komatsu D65 its only real competitor in the mid-sized market.

    Wheel loaders are incredibly popular pieces of heavy equipment in that their front-mounted scoop buckets are able to transport heavy loads of loose fill and materials in an efficient manner. Some of these units are able to handle several tons of material in one pass, and are adept at depositing their load onto a conveyor belt, into a dump truck bed, or simply moving the product around a construction or mining site.

    Backhoes combine the best of both worlds, as they sport a loading bucket in front with an excavating boom arm in the rear. The excavating arm is generally used for trenching, though it can be used for light demolition duties. The loading bucket in the front is perfect for moving and transporting loose fill.

    Agricultural Machinery – During the turn of the 20th that one farmer could produce enough food to feed twenty-five people. Today, that number has expanded to one hundred-thirty people. The main difference is in the heavy equipment that is used on a daily basis by our hardworking farming communities.

    Some of the most commonly used pieces of heavy agricultural equipment are tractors, tillers, seeders, and irrigation rigs. Tractors have been in use for years, and have grown increasingly efficient through the use of quick detachable implements and accessories. Tillers are commonly used to prep seedbeds and do an admirable job of churning the ground and prepping the soil base to ensure a hospitable environment for plant and fruit seeds.

    Seeders are designed to insert seeds into the ground at pre-determined intervals, and make the life of the agricultural worker much easier than previously imagined. Irrigation rigs provide much needed water in bulk quantities, and in a much quicker manner than compared to other watering processes. Agricultural machinery may be more specifically geared toward one task versus a construction-biased heavy machine, but the fundamentals are similar. Leveraging the power of hydraulics, powerful diesel motors, and heavy-duty steel frames, these machines are designed to work.

    Material moving/handling – Heavy equipment like cranes, forklifts, and aerial work platforms represent some of the machines that comprise the material moving and handling category. These machines are designed to move bulky, heavy, and otherwise difficult to move cargo over short to moderate distances, and are built with power and safety in mind.

    Commonly used cranes in the construction industry include crawler cranes and truck mounted cranes. Crawler cranes utilize tracked wheels to permit a mobile platform, and can move around while holding a load. They are able to do this without outriggers and are able to navigate a job site easily. Truck mounted cranes are not quite as maneuverable around the job site, and do require outriggers for stability, but they can drive between multiple job sites under their own power. Crawler cranes must be broken down and hauled to a new job site on a flatbed trailer.

    Forklifts are seen in areas as diverse as marine loading docks, large warehouses, and in agricultural applications. These can operate on liquid propane, diesel, natural gas, or electricity. Aerial work platforms are seen in the construction trades and are perfect for use as temporary scaffolding platforms, as well as to transport materials from the ground level to a higher elevation – and vice versa.

    Heavy equipment operators must be trained to command these powerful machines

    The role of the heavy or construction equipment operator is a commanding position. Those who operate these steel beasts must be knowledgeable about the physics of moving heavy loads of fill or material, the dynamics of a machine that can weigh ten or more tons, and the general safety requirements of operating any piece of heavy machinery.

    Construction equipment operators control the heavy machinery used to build roads, buildings, bridges, and other general structures. They might use this machinery to move heavy materials at construction sites and mines. Clearing and grading the surface level to prepare for the construction of roads, airport runways, and other facilities is an additional responsibility. Heavy equipment operators can control industrial trucks or tractors equipped with lifts or booms for managing heavy materials. These operators may also perform maintenance on general power equipment at construction sites.

    Working conditions for heavy equipment operators can be difficult, to say the least. Exposure to dust, dirt, mud, grease, and hazardous materials is a reality. Modern heavy machines do employ several safety features that are designed to protect the operator from flying debris, sharp objects, and the elements. For instance, most units are equipped with roll over protection systems (ROPS), and heavy gauge Plexiglas/safety glass windscreens. Even factoring in the ROPS, the variety of restraint systems, and the thick glass surrounding the operator’s cab, working conditions can be dirty and hazardous. For those who operate machinery in desolate locations or in dangerous areas like underground mines, an added element of danger exists.

    How to become a heavy equipment operator

    There are several ways to become a qualified heavy equipment operator. One way is to attend a private vocational school that offers programs in construction equipment operation. It is important that the school provides an opportunity for students to operate and work on actual machines in realistic situations. Any prospective student will want to determine what the school provides in terms of hands-on training.

    Though classroom instruction is highly valuable to any heavy equipment trainee, the physicality of the job must be felt to provide the real world feel for the job.Some trainees are able to practice on sophisticated simulators for their real world training, while others are able to take the helm of a bulldozer, backhoe, or other heavy machine.

    Most schools or prospective employers require a high school diploma, and exposure to classes like English, math, and machine shop are helpful. Many students find that a course in auto mechanics is useful due to the maintenance requirements of heavy machinery. If a bulldozer or tractor needs a simple, on the fly repair, it is less costly and significantly faster to have the operator make the fix, versus waiting for a repair crew. Basic processes can be managed in the field, but for more serious repairs or maintenance issues the construction manager will want to seek professional services.

    On the job training is another way that prospective heavy equipment operators can receive the training they need. While vocational training and classroom instruction is helpful, a new operator may find that having a veteran machine operator teaching the ins and outs of machine operation may provide a quicker learning curve. One thing to consider, though, is that these trainers will rarely have the in-depth knowledge of all current safety regulations that are important to know.

    Some learn this trade through a three to four-year apprenticeship program. Apprentices must complete at least 144 hours per year of technical instruction and 2,000 hours of paid, on-the-jobsite experience.

    Licensing requirements vary among states, but construction equipment operators often possess a commercial driver’s license, which permits the legal transportation of heavy equipment between jobsites. State rules about commercial driver's licenses often vary, with some states requiring a special operator’s license for anyone who plans on operating a backhoe, loader, or bulldozer.

    Pile driver operators may be required to have a crane operator certificate or license. Eighteen states, along with the cities of New Orleans, Chicago, New York City, Omaha, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., classify pile drivers as cranes, requiring operators to possess a crane license.

    Understanding the hazards associated with heavy equipment operation is important

    It is crucial that any new or seasoned operator understands the dangers involved with operating heavy construction equipment. Some of the more common issues that an operator will run into are:

    Though there is certainly the potential for danger when operating heavy machinery, by paying attention to one’s surroundings, an operator can enjoy a long, safe career in the construction trades.

    Should businesses rent, lease, or buy heavy equipment?

    One of the biggest management concerns for any company that uses heavy equipment is whether to rent, lease, or buy the equipment. The real question comes down to – how often will the company use the machinery, how much working capital can they invest in it, and what type of machines are most needed for any potential jobs?

    Renting equipment – Companies that decide to rent equipment may uncover a few key points:

    Leasing Equipment – Companies that lease equipment may find the following benefits and drawbacks:

    Buying equipment – construction firms that choose to buy their own heavy equipment will realize the following key points:

    If a company plans on using the machine frequently, it may make economic sense to purchase, otherwise, seeking a rental or lease may be wise. Tying up significant amounts of capital can keep a business from purchasing supplies, meeting payroll, and expanding operational capabilities.

    The overall costs of operating heavy equipment are significant

    Those with years in the construction industry understand the delicate balance between pricing a job low enough to win the bid (yet still make a profit), and pricing a job too high where a competitor wins the bid. While it is important to make money, construction managers can offer competitive bids to prospective clients as long as they know and understand the costs associated with operating heavy equipment. These fixed and variable costs can make or break a job, so it is imperative to understand the key expense drivers related to these big machines:

    Heavy equipment powers construction efforts across the nation – and the world!

    Heavy equipment operators are needed on jobsites across the nation. With the recent surge in commercial building increasing the demand for skilled operators, now is a great time to learn the methodology behind controlling a heavy machine.

    For businesses that want to increase efficiencies and the overall effectiveness in the competitive commercial and residential building sector, renting, leasing, or buying heavy equipment will help. Those looking for work in this field will find competitive wages and good job security. Whether learning on the job, in a classroom, on a simulator, or from a veteran operator, a career in heavy equipment construction is challenging work - but also rewarding and in demand.

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