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From Perch Atop The World, Petite Grandma Holds Court

Hospital Construction Project Benefits from Woman’s Touch 

On the construction site at the new Middletown Regional Hospital is a flurry of activity from iron workers, concrete finishers, carpenters, rod busters and various other crafts clamoring for the attention of one person — the crane operator, Cathy Hannah, a petite grandmother with an office 165 feet above the worksite in the cab of a tower crane.

Daily, Cathy starts work at 3:30 a.m., climbing 200 rungs on ladders enclosed in a safety cage, to reach her 5.5’ x 3.7’ perch atop the world (a little box in the sky, according to Cathy). She begins each day testing the equipment and warming the motor, swinging it full circle. Promptly at 5 a.m., she gives the signal and work begins with each construction crew getting equal crane time for the jobs they need completed on the new hospital’s elevated floors and on the ground. Her shifts can last as long as 12 hours.

Cathy, a quilter and 47-year-old native of Columbus, Ohio, is the only female tower crane operator in the state. In fact, there are only 40 women (5 percent) of a total workforce of 850 crane operators in Ohio, a statistic in line with the national average.

Middletown Regional Hospital has had a tower crane on site since last February, and Cathy began work as a temporary oilier on the crane. In that position, she was responsible for equipment function and maintenance. Now she operates the crane and will continue this job through early July after the final steel beams are erected on the hospital.

Tower cranes rise hundreds of feet into the air with an average reach of 265 feet. They’re used to hoist steel, concrete, large tools, like acetylene torches, fork lift trucks and generators, and a variety of other building materials. Tower cranes are probably the most difficult—if not the most dangerous—to operate and require consummate skill and training. An operator usually spends years operating various pieces of machinery before graduating to a tower crane. This can include working on a crawler crane, a smaller crane that moves around the worksite.

So how did Cathy get started in what is a male-dominated profession?

“I worked in a factory for years and then decided I wanted to switch to construction,” said Cathy. “I applied and was accepted by the Ohio Operating Engineers four-year training and apprenticeship program. When I finished the course and took the written test, I was one of only 13 who passed out of 237 people! I knew then that I had found my calling.”

Since passing her test with flying colors, Cathy has been working in construction. For the last 10 years, she has focused her skills on operating cranes. Her ultimate goal was to operate the tower crane, and to do so she enrolled in classes to learn a new skill set.

Once trained, she was ready to take on the challenge. She asked her bosses at All-Crane, a national construction company based in Cleveland, whether she could operate its tower crane on the Middletown Regional construction site. They eventually agreed, and it’s been Cathy’s home in the sky for the last four months.

When asked about the challenges she faces for this tough assignment, Cathy stresses that physical strength is not a prerequisite for the job. Hand and eye coordination, flexibility, the ability to accurately determine capacity and to control and navigate load are of paramount importance. Patience and an even temperament under pressure also are necessary attributes.

Cathy cautions that tower crane operators must remain alert to danger at all times since cranes can cause serious damage and injury when not used properly. The biggest challenge is weather, which can make it difficult to move heavy loads safely.

“There was a time early on when I said ‘this job is NOT for me,’ but I stuck with it and now I really enjoy the opportunity to contribute,” said Cathy. “I take enormous pride in my work to complete lifts safely.”