Jeff is a crane operator working out of Detroit, Michigan. Thirty years ago, he learned how to operate heavy equipment the same way every other operator did: on the job. “I remember starting out in a 20-ton crane years and years ago,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing—alarms were going off; I was hitting override buttons—I’m lucky to be alive.”
This kind of story gets told all over the industry. For operators of a certain era, on-the-job training was simply how things were done. But times have changed. Safety is taken more seriously now. In the past, a proactive safety culture might have been seen as a necessary evil, but now it is widely understood that strong health and safety measures are just plain good for business, resulting in cost savings, improved work site morale and more satisfied clients.
From that point of view, on-the job training is just not practicable: it’s dangerous; it’s hard on the machines; and it often means that equipment, as well as experienced operators, are taken out of production.
It’s only in the last 10 years or so that any useful alternative to on-the-job training has become available. Although crane simulators have been used for operator training since the mid-1990s, early simulators did not have very realistic graphics, and the simulations of the crane and load dynamics were poor. In addition, training content was limited to basic control familiarization and understanding basic operating procedures.
On the other hand, the defense and aviation sectors have used advanced simulators to train pilots for decades, to the point where it has long been impossible to get or even maintain a pilot’s license without regular simulator training. In recent years, the professional-grade simulation technology that is common in the aviation and defense sectors has come down to earth, so to speak, thanks to a more pervasive construction safety culture, as well as the increasing complexity of cranes and heavy construction equipment.
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