Crane man extraordinaire
By D.Ann Shiffler01 February 2017
The year was 1967 and John Alexander’s father was superintendent of a construction project in West Texas. When a Linden tower crane was erected at the job site, the entire community was in awe.
“No one had ever seen a tower crane,” remembered Alexander, founder of CraneTex Services and a long-time crane safety industry leader.
On weekends Alexander would go out to the jobsite to look at the machine and get familiar with its operation. At that time, tower cranes were operated with belly boxes.
“This was the pre-cab days for tower cranes,” Alexander said.
The motor crane operators from Local 819 in Fort Worth came out to operate the tower crane but they didn’t stay very long because they were used to a machine with a seat and cab, Alexander recalled.
“The last operator quit and the Local was contacted for a replacement,” said Alexander. “No operators were available so I was handed the box, and I went to work. The union business agent sold me a card, and I became a tower crane operator. After that project, offers began to come to me through the union requesting an experienced tower crane operator. Tower cranes were beginning to become popular.”
That’s the short story of how Alexander got in the crane business. His next job was on a high-rise building in Amarillo. In 1970 he moved to Houston where the sky was full of tower cranes. After operating numerous tower cranes in the Bayou City, Alexander went to work for a heavy rigging company operating truck and crawler cranes. In time he would run large crawlers, turbine deck overhead cranes and he even spent some time operating dry-dock cranes at shipyards.
If it lifts something, Alexander has probably run it.
“I spent many years in the Houston area with various crane companies in the refineries and chemical plants and also on large steel erection projects,” he said.
After 32-plus years in the crane operator seat Alexander started CraneTex Services, a crane consulting business in Central Texas. Today he is semi-retired but still works with the NCCCO and the International Union of Operating Engineers.
Alexander is a pioneer in the safe operation of cranes and training. He recently shared his knowledge and wisdom with American Cranes & Transport.
For many years you have provided independent crane inspection services for crane-owning companies. what is the value of this service from your company and other companies like yours?
The inspection of cranes and hoisting equipment has moved forward by leaps and bounds in the time I have been involved in the industry. We, as a group of like-minded, third-party inspection companies, strive to maintain safety first and code compliance for our clients.
Applying the OSHA, ASME-ANSI and manufacturers’ directives to the inspection procedure is our baseline. We like to develop a good working relationship with our clients and we stress that no question regarding crane safety should go without an answer.
You have long been active in NCCCO and you have been an advocate for crane operator certification. Do you think OSHA will really come through with a certified crane operator mandate in 2017?
I began my relationship with the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators (NCCCO) around 1997. The program has taken the crane industry to new heights in certification. I have been an advocate for the testing to certification for operators for many years. I served on the crane inspector task force when we fabricated the certified inspector program. We in the industry are awaiting the rollout of the OSHA crane operator mandate in 2017.
When did you realize that a crane inspector certification was needed? Do you think certified crane operators should also be certified crane inspectors?
I came from a time in which there were no crane inspectors or formal inspection companies in my area. After meeting the first so-called crane inspector, I realized that trained, certified inspectors were the best way to assist in safety and code compliance.
The training and certification process is always ongoing as cranes are very high tech now. I am of the opinion that assisting crane operators with the best working knowledge of the inspection process of the machine which they operate would be beneficial. A dedicated professional crane operator would certainly benefit by achieving a certification to inspect cranes.
What is it about the crane industry that kept you interested for so many years?
From a young age, heavy machinery was always interesting. My father was a construction worker and later a general superintendent on many large projects. There were always big machines moving on these projects.
The cranes at that time were small crawler or mobile machines, but the way they moved equipment and material was simply fascinating. From the first time I knuckled the hoist drum in to now, the cranes have been my passion.
What is the most interesting job you ever worked on?
I must say that I have a lifetime of fond memories involving the crane industry. My best and fondest memories are starting and completing a power plant project and of taking a high-rise structure from the basement to topping out and running all types of cranes and hoists on those projects.
Where has the crane industry taken you?
With 50 years of involvement in the crane industry, I must say it has been thrilling. Watching the machines grow from a 50-ton truck crane to a 3,500-ton crawler has been amazing. The crane and hoisting industry has enabled mankind to perform unbelievable accomplishments.
Do you have a favorite crane? If so what is it?
I have some favorite cranes in my past. The first being a 15-ton P & H Mighty Mite truck crane with a straight drive power train. My mentor told me if you can run this machine you can run’em all. I also operated a Model 9125 P & H motor crane for many years with a heavy rigging company. At the time it was not the biggest but to me it was a giant. We would put it together and take it apart and move it on a regular schedule, always moving. I grew quite fond of that old P & H.
What do you do in your leisure time?
My leisure time is now split between working on my ranch in Central Texas and my beach house on South Padre Island, Texas. There are always projects at the ranch. I am building my on personal bar at my beach house on the island. My bar has a karaoke machine and a satellite boom box so my friends and I enjoy playing and singing all types of music. Sometimes we sound pretty good. I am a big fan of Texas music, and I like going to hear some of the musicians that I personally know play.
I understand you have quite a few musician friends. Like Who?
I have been fortunate to know guys like Joe Ely and his Flatlanders. Bobby Keys, the saxophone player for the Rolling Stones, was a friend of mine. I’m friends with Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, and I was friends with the late Blaze Foley. I met Willie Nelson back in 1980 and gave him a custom-made walking cane. Now that was a thrill.
I understand you recently retired? What do you plan to do now?
I have been fortunate the last year. I have passed the torch on to a young man who is filling my shoes well. I am still consulting but I have been spending more time at my beach house. Each time I see a crane boom it takes me back to my glory days and all the fond memories of my crane buddies and the big rigs.