How Do You Replace the Oiler?

In August, I had the privilege of covering the Midwest skills competition for crane operators. That event, held in metropolitan Chicago, was one of several scheduled to take place all over North America in the coming months. The top two crane operators from each regional contest earn a paid-for-trip to the Crane & Rigging Hot Line and CIC Crane Operator Skills Championship at ConExpo in Las Vegas next March.
The Crane Operator Skills Championship program is organized and sponsored jointly by sister publication Crane & Rigging Hot Line and Crane Institute Certification to give positive recognition to the lifting industry and emphasize the need for trained, skilled crane operators.
Since I like cranes, having the chance to watch them in action and talk to the skilled operators who make them run is always a pleasure.
For some reason, the crane business tends to be a family business, and as much a passion as a profession. Many operators at the Midwest qualifying event had followed their father, uncle, older brother, father-in-law, or a mentor into the profession. In fact, the contestants in Chicago included two pairs of fathers and sons, as well as at least one uncle and nephew.
One of the Crane Operator Skills Competition’s major purposes is emphasizing the need for skilled and trained operators. Much effort is being put into developing a new generation of operators and certifying them.
Oilers becoming extinct
Talking with some of the operators at the event reminded me of a change in the industry that makes current training efforts all the more important: the disappearance of oilers on cranes.
Many of the older operators I talked with started out in their careers as oilers, a job that is rapidly disappearing as gears, sprockets, chains, clutches, and linkages give way to hydraulic drives and electronic controls. Though the technological advancements are boon for reliability, efficiency, and economy, they have all but eliminated what was once a predominant method of developing crane operators.
In the past, a person who wanted to get into the crane business often started as an oiler, lubricating and maintaining a crane. In the process, he came to thoroughly understand how the machine worked. In addition, when the oiler wasn’t maintaining the rig, he (or occasionally she) spent time watching and learning the intricacies of the profession from the crane’s operator. Eventually, the operator would let the oiler learn the controls by letting him make small lifts. When the operator felt the oiler was ready, he’d submit the oiler’s name to the union hall for more training and the chance to become an operator. Some of the operators I talked with in Chicago said they had called oilers “operators in training.”
Also, in the past crane operators tended to work their way up the ladder of capacity in the cranes they ran. I have heard many times that operators usually started out running smaller cranes, then as they became proficient, moved up to larger ones. By the time an operator grabbed hold of a really large crane’s controls, he had accumulated many thousands of hours’ experience in the seat.
The loss of the oiler arrangement’s one-on-one training and the system in which operators worked their way up the ladder of capacity make the industry’s current efforts to assure that crane operators are properly trained and experienced all the more vital.
Where did you get your start in the crane industry? I’d love to hear your story. Email me at or send us a tweet at or a message on our Facebook page,

Lift & Access is part of the Catalyst Communications Network publication family.