Up, Up, Up!

José Calvache (47) has been a crane inspector at the Lyon branch of DEKRA Industrial SAS for 15 years. He has experienced a great deal, but fortunately he never gets stuck in a rut in his dangerous job. Each and every inspection requires the utmost concentration and courage.

Dizzy heights: José Calvache surveys a crane arm from a basket while performing an inspection – at a height of 35 meters. Photo: DEKRA

Dizzy heights: José Calvache surveys a crane arm from a basket while performing an inspection – at a height of 35 meters.  Photo: Jean-Claude Winkler Photography

It’s exactly 8 a.m. on Rue de Château Gaillard in the Villeurbanne district, roughly six kilometers from downtown Lyon; the temperature is just above freezing: José Calvache is calm and focused as he prepares for the day’s first crane inspection by putting on the personal protective equipment – protective footwear, safety vest, hard hat, gloves, and climbing gear – that is laid out ready in his car.

The object of his inspection is an MDT 269 rotating tower crane produced by French manufacturer Potain that, over the past two days, has been erected on a residential building site run by construction firm Eiffage. With a cabin height of 32 meters and a 40-meter-long arm, this is the most common size of rotating tower crane. “In France, acceptance testing is mandatory before a crane is put into operation for the first time,” explains Alexandre Auclair from the sales team while José carries out the inspection. “After that, the crane has to be inspected once a year. However, this only happens very rarely, as cranes are usually dismantled and then rebuilt at another construction site before then.” The inspection is scheduled to take approximately three hours.

“I focus completely on the inspection”

In a series of lively movements, José climbs the ladder in the crane tower until he reaches the platform on which the rotating cabin is mounted. First of all, he verifies with the crane assembler that each individual assembly stage has been carried out, marking them off on a checklist. Once this is done, he mounts the crane arm, which has been painted red, and checks all the nuts and bolts himself. Smiling, he explains that today is a good day: “The sun is shining, it isn’t raining, and there isn’t much wind – ideal conditions for doing my job.”

A head for heights: the view of the upper exit hatch from inside the tower. Climbers have a clear view and have to get up on their own strength. Photo: DEKRAPlenty to talk about: as the platform sways, José Calvache (left) and Alexandre Auclair (center) answer the questions of the curious author. Photo: DEKRAEverything under control: the display in the driver’s cabin shows the load exerted on the crane arm by the test weight. Photo: DEKRARight to the edge: maximum focus is required – and this helps to keep fear in check. Photo: DEKRAFoto: Jean-Claude Winkler PhotographyFull size: the arm of a Potain MDT 269 rotating tower crane measures 40 meters in length. Photo: DEKRA

With a sharp tug at the steel cable, he enters the motorized maintenance basket, which will convey him a distance of 40 meters – all the way to the end of the arm. He stops every now and again and hooks himself to the crane with rope and shackles. Once secured, he climbs out of the basket and on to the crane arm in order to inspect the joints. Just watching him would be enough to leave those of an anxious disposition in a cold sweat. “To be honest, it’s quite simple,” explains José once he’s back on terra firma. “I focus completely on the inspection and on doing my job, thus ignoring my fear – although it never really goes away.” Before joining DEKRA, he worked as a helicopter mechanic in the French army. A special, 20-day training course prepared him for his job as an inspector, and he is now part of a five-strong team of experts at the Lyon branch.

Lifting test: looking down at the ground 35 meters below, where the test weights are ­suspended on the crane’s hook.

Lifting test: looking down at the ground 35 meters below, where the test weights are ­suspended on the crane’s hook.  Photo: Jean-Claude Winkler Photography

Acceptance testing for the Potain MDT 269 also includes a lifting test, where the crane bears a load above the permissible weight and the winch therefore becomes blocked. Right at the tip of the arm, the crane can bear a maximum of six metric tons of weight on the movable crane trolley. José starts by testing the trolley with a 2.5 metric ton concrete block. When this block is lifted, a jolt goes through the crane that causes it to sway slightly. José then has to access a special program in order to suspend a further five metric tons of weight. A worker at ground level attaches the hook to the two stacked blocks. Following a jolt that causes the crane to lean forward, the arm is now supporting 7.5 metric tons – 1.5 more metric tons than permitted. The structure withstands the load and passes the test. The swaying that follows would leave even the strongest stomachs feeling a little queasy; Alexandre Auclair, who has also climbed up onto the platform, is clinging firmly to the railing. “I’ll feel a lot better when we are back on firm ground,” he admits, putting a brave face on things.

His colleague José, however, is completely unperturbed. He not only carries out crane inspections two to three times a week, but also inspects elevators, scaffolding, and aerial work platforms. And the 32 meters of this crane pale into insignificance compared with the highest crane that he has ever climbed. “During construction of the Sioule Viaduct in the Auvergne region, I had to inspect a 120-meter-high crane that was attached to a pillar. It was horrible. I had to gather all my courage to climb up.”

A similarly “exciting” situation occurred when the concrete foundation of a crane he was testing gave way under the weight, although the crane fortunately didn’t topple over. “That was a pretty strange feeling. The crane shook a lot and there was a loud bang, but luckily nothing else happened. As you might expect, I was unable to approve the crane for use.” And what does a crane inspector get up to in their spare time? Do they carry on looking for an adrenaline rush? “Well, if you count online games and hunting, then I suppose so,” he laughs. He then says goodbye, as he has to write his report about the successful acceptance test.

Behind the scenes

Author Alexander Föll accompanied the crane inspector José Calvache in his work. Photo: DEKRA

Author Alexander Föll accompanied the crane inspector José Calvache for one day.  Photo: Jean-Claude Winkler Photography

Although it was all in a day’s work for José, the crane ­inspection in Lyon was quite an experience for me (and the photographer). Although 35 meters doesn’t sound all that high, climbing the crane took a lot of effort and was rewarded with a spectacular view from the top. Our colleagues in Lyon went the extra mile to help us understand their day-to-day working life.

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