Some 2015 forecasts have projected a soft year in pipeline construction as compared to the boom-or-bust atmosphere of 2012 and 2013, which suggests that pipeline contractors can perhaps be more selective in their hiring as compared to recent years. However, when faced with a large pool of potential applicants for only a few open positions, owners can feel overwhelmed when trying to narrow the field.
For wheel loader operators especially, owners must examine several facets of the candidate’s background and behavior before entrusting them with the machine. By looking at the top attributes that separate the best operators from the pack, owners can more clearly form a qualified, capable team for their oil and gas project.
Chris Connolly, manager of the Certified Operator Training program at Volvo Construction Equipment, explains how owners can quickly gauge an applicant’s aptitude for the job based on their maintenance and safety habits, operational practices and overall equipment experience. And it all starts with putting the applicant to the test on the jobsite. Here are some of the top things to watch for.
One of the most telling indications of a qualified operator becomes apparent before he or she even enters the cab.
“Prior to beginning work for the day, a seasoned operator will do a full walkaround inspection of the wheel loader before entering the machine,” Connolly says. “Owners should ask the applicant to do so in order to gauge
their knowledge on wheel loader maintenance.”
A qualified applicant will be checking everything from tire inflation pressures, chips in the bucket and hose leaks, to fluid and fuel levels.
“Oftentimes oil and gas projects require that crews work in extremely remote areas that are far from immediate access to parts and service, so the daily walkaround is an essential component of uptime, and a qualified applicant should be well versed in basic preventive maintenance,” Connolly says.
Connolly also suggests gauging applicants’ familiarity with any specific wheel loader technologies that will be used on the jobsite.
“It’s common that operators will be tasked with changing out attachments on the jobsite, so it’s important to ask about their experience with installation and use of those attachments,” Connolly says. “It’s also important to ask them about the experience with maintaining the latest technologies. For instance, Tier 4 Final engines often have different service intervals and fluid requirements than previous engine technologies. It’s important to know what experience the applicant has had with the technology on your jobsite.”
The Entry and Preparation
After an applicant has completed a walk-around and demonstrated their knowledge of machine maintenance, it’s time to get in the seat. Entering the cab safely is key to preventing an injury — and is a step that can often get put on autopilot.
“I’ve seen many documented injuries resulting in slips and falls from operators simply not getting in and out of the cab correctly,” Connolly says. “Maintaining three points of contact while entering and exiting the cab, and facing toward the machine instead of away while going up and down the ladder are simple practices that can be forgotten
Once inside the cab, Connolly also urges owners to observe how an operator prepares for a day of work.
“Adjusting the seat and positioning mirrors properly are essential for the operator to be comfortable, safe and productive. There can be a lot of pressure to start work as quickly as possible, but not taking the time to adjust the cab can cause problems.”
Additionally, the applicant should assess the general surroundings before getting to work.
“For oil and gas projects, especially, several pieces of equipment work together in tight proximity. A seasoned operator won’t just look over the wheel loader before getting into the cab — they take into consideration the area they’ll be working in and noting any limitations from debris, unfilled trenches or other working equipment,” Connolly says.
Watch for Smooth Cycling
Once in the seat, put the applicant to the test under real-life circumstances.
“It’s very apparent to a foreman or superintendent if a candidate isn’t qualified based on how they run through a cycle,” Connolly says. “On oil and gas jobsites, the wheel loader is tasked with continuous filling and backfilling, as well as loading and offloading of trucks. The faster the operator can safely accomplish these tasks, the more productive your crew will be.”
A skilled operator will quickly and effectively fill the entire loader bucket from the backfill pile, and cycle through their load and carry tasks in a fluid series of motions. This process can be timed to compare applicants’ performance.
For larger jobs that may attract a significant pool of applicants, it may not be feasible for owners to take out all the potential operators to the jobsite. In this instance, a simulator program is an excellent tool for quickly assessing the competence of the applicants. Simulator training can often be conducted by an equipment manufacturer or from a nearby technical school with a relevant operator training program.
“With a simulator, owners can assess cycle timing and how the operator performs simple tasks, like proper bucket filling and truckload timing,” Connolly says. “It gives owners a quick snapshot of an operator’s ability before bringing them on the site.”
Beyond spatial awareness and quick cycle timing, there are a few common mistakes that a qualified applicant avoids.
“Some operators have a tendency to rest a foot on the brake pedal. Newer wheel loaders have sensitive electronic brake systems, so the smallest pressure can jar the machine and engage the brakes, which increases heat to the axles and detracts from the service life of the braking system,” Connolly says.
Operators should only engage the brake when they intend to brake, and change directions consciously.
“In smaller cycles, like for truck loading, unskilled operators will change directions on the fly, which is really hard on the drivetrain,” Connolly says. “Volvo wheel loaders are equipped with a system called reverse-by-braking, which does this work intuitively, allowing the wheel loader a smooth change in speed to reserve the drivetrain and prevent abrupt shifting transitions.”
Watch from Afar
Since an owner can only observe so much of an operator’s behavior from outside the cab, telematics reports can be helpful in assessing an operator’s performance.
“Many of the major equipment manufacturers offer telematics, such as the Volvo CareTrack system, which allows owners to remotely monitor the health of their fleet, and identify any operational problems or patterns early on,” Connolly says.
Some telematics technologies are also linked to utilization reporting — such as Volvo MATRIS (Machine Tracking Information System), which provides readouts of operator usage and behavior characteristics. MATRIS data also lets an owner know if the operator may need additional guidance on wheel loader best practices, like proper machine shutdown, bucket loading, idle times and braking habits.
Even operators who have logged significant hours with a wheel loader should continue to take advantage of ongoing training opportunities, some of which — like the Volvo Certified Operator training program — are offered from the wheel loader manufacturer. Programs like this equip operators with a thorough background of their machine, from required safety and maintenance checks to operational best practices.
Owners should also look to strengthen their relationships with their dealers. Beyond providing essential resources on equipment, maintenance and fleet management, dealers also provide owners with support on operator training and ongoing education.
By using the training and real site tools available, like simulator training and telematics reporting, owners will be empowered to choose the most capable operators to manage their fleet, and provide ongoing assistance to ensure they contribute productively and profitably to the bottom line.
Erika Schrader is a features writer for Two Rivers Marketing, Des Moines, Iowa.