The mast climbers within the masonry industry are figuratively related to the mast climbers on early American ships, even though in masonry it refers to equipment and in ship lingo, it refers to humans. It’s all about vertical ascension. Most of the forests in England had been depleted by the 17th century, and King George laid claim to the tall white pines in Maine to meet his country’s need for lumber, both to build ships and for the masts. Masts were of particular importance, as they needed to be replaced often from battle or weather-related incidents.
Both lumber and shipbuilding were dominant industries in the early Maine economy. No doubt, the locals did not take any more too kindly to the British robbing their forests than Boston patriots did to the tea tax, prompting the Boston Tea Party in 1773. By the end of the 18th century, the best trees for masts had been harvested. While the white pine tree is renown for fast growth, even two feet per year, it still takes decades to grow to mast height and strength. Stonemasons were busy in early Maine as well, as evidenced by copious brick buildings in Portland and other communities and college campuses throughout the Pine Tree State.
Climbing the mast on a tall ship is a frequent necessity to set the sails and check and adjust the rigging. On windjammer and tall ship cruises, paying customers have the opportunity to climb the mast for adrenalin-pumping thrills, not exactly how the mason approaches his mast climbing equipment. Cruise folks can rest and take panoramic photos from the crow’s nest, akin to the mason’s work platform. Until the invention of radar, this was the best place to view hazards, enemies, weather and land. The swaying part of the ship mast climb is included free of charge.
Mast climbing equipment for the stonemason, thankfully, does not sway like a ship mast in the breeze, and the ground does not roll like the ocean. It is neither constructed of white pine nor complicated with myriad ropes, ratlines, shrouds and cables attached at various angles. This equipment is a cleverly designed vertical tower of steel on which a work platform travels up and down perpendicular to the mast or tower. Depending on the size of a project, there may be one or two or more masts and most have an anchoring system of ties and bolts that affix the tower(s) to the building or project.
According to “Reaching Higher,” a study published in 2010 by the CPWR Work Group on Mast Climbing Platforms:
Mast climbers are typically associated with high-rise construction, but they are used most often on structures up to 60 feet in height (Inglesby 2008). The heights at which mast climbers are used vary according to their specific application and type of system. Hydraulically-powered ratcheting drive systems are commonly used at lower heights, for masonry work. Rack-and-pinion systems are typically used at elevations of 30 feet and higher and can go as high as 1,000 feet. These systems are commonly used for glazing and drywall applications. In addition to these applications, mast climbers are also used in architectural cladding and mechanical work (for instance, to mobilize and install heavy-duty steel pipe and duct work).
Considering that the ancient Egyptians thought to raise a stick with some cloth on it to catch the wind and propel boats up and down the Nile River back when years were marked B.C., mast climbers on the construction site are like newbies in civilization. The powered versions began to appear in the 1980s and grew in popularity quickly in the ’90s for the many advantages. Companies like Klimer and EZ Scaffold offer a variety of mast climber equipment, which is constantly evolving.
“The potential for mast climbing equipment and its applications has just tapped the surface,” explains Megan Russell, Marketing Communications Manager for Klimer Platforms, based in Milton, Ontario. “Doors are opening to new opportunities where mast climbing solutions are part of exciting and innovative projects. The perception and knowledge of the product and the benefits of providing mast climbing work platforms as part of a versatile project access solution are growing. We see great strides in the industry’s awareness of the safety, efficiency and productivity of mast climbers, and this knowledge is driving new possibilities and potential.”
Among the benefits of mast climbers are:
- Rigid mast sections provide great stability
- Push button operation
- Self-contained power supply
- Heavier load capacity
- Faster travel speed
- Reduced fall risk and protection gear
- More ergonomic work positions
- Stackable components for transport
- Move materials independently of cranes and booms
- Auxiliary power for emergencies
- Potentially less ground or environmental disruption
Stone masonry is a physically demanding job and one where ergonomic tools and equipment have been specially designed and developed to reduce repetitive strain conditions and contribute to efficiency and comfort. The mast climber is highly touted for masons for its flexibility in placing the mason appropriately to do the work without extensive reaching up, bending down, twisting or otherwise contorting unnaturally to reach the workspace and get the job done. Personal protective gear is still highly recommended, but not as much is required on large, stable, work platforms that hold everything one needs for a few hours or day of steady brick, concrete or stone work.
Mast climbers do cost more than traditional scaffolding by a factor as high as three times, though there are measurable advantages in terms of worker productivity, speed and weight capacity. “They substantially increase production and decrease labor,” says Clint Bridges, Vice President at EZ Scaffold. Located about an hour south of Music City, i.e., Nashville, Tenn., EZ Scaffold claims for its slogan: “The Smartest Way to the Top”.
“If you think you have to use traditional frame scaffold because you think a mast climber won’t work, you could be costing yourself a considerable amount of money, not to mention the safety risks and OSHA fines,” Bridges continues. “Having to set it by hand used to be an issue, but with the EZ Compact, mast climbers now give you an option that can increase production with dramatic labor savings. With the labor shortage these days, contractors are turning to mast climbers to save labor. It’s more important now than ever to do more with less.”
The higher price tag is noteworthy, so leasing, renting and buying are all viable options. “As an emerging market, mast climbers are still comparatively new, so there isn’t a clear long-term direction favoring purchase or rental by end users,” Russell points out. “By comparison to other construction industry segments, we can see that there is a strong heavy equipment rental industry due to capital cost of equipment, utilization, service and maintenance and the growing need for cradle-to-grave lifecycle tracking driven by regulation.”
- Bridges has discovered that the rent vs. buy decision really depends on the contractor and business. “We have some customers who own [equipment] and will rent for a job that requires them to go a little longer or taller than they normally do. We are getting a lot of customers who supply the scaffold for all of the trades on the job. This is a good way to build up a nice inventory of equipment and letting the job[s] pay for it. EZ Mast Climbers are a great multi-trade scaffold because they are fast enough for the other trades with a high capacity for the loads that masonry requires. The contractor partners with us to help them with the liability and training issues that come with supplying your equipment to others. You never want to just ‘let someone else use it.’ “
Russell notes that “full cost accounting of mast climbers compared to traditional frame scaffolding most often highlights the real advantage of mast climbers because full cost accounting captures productivity increases of time-to-elevation, efficiency of work space, tool access, proximity to work surface and materials loading efficiencies. This is especially true of restoration work where material removed from the structure must be captured and taken to ground for disposal.”
Safety and Training
The stability of the masts, increased load capacity of the work platforms and ease of operation are drawing mast climbers into the planning phase of building projects. As with all construction site equipment, safety measures and training programs are imperative. Mast climbing equipment is fairly new, so it does not have as large a volume of experienced set-up personnel and users as traditional scaffolding. The growing appeal of mast climbers puts pressure on the manufacturers, construction supervisors and masons to become familiar with assembly, daily use and inspection, including knowing what to look for. Some of the obvious things to be alert to are:
- Adequate base support
- Correct assembly of components
- Secure tie-ins and lateral anchors
- Fall hazard between mast and building
- Corrosion or sloppy fittings
- Power hazards
- Obstructions in path of travel
- Knowing load capacities for materials and personnel
- Sufficient planking and guardrails
- Maintenance routinely performed per manufacturer’s instruction
- Effective verbal and hand communications among everyone involved
The Nonstopscaffolding.com website has a Safety tab with lots of valuable information on ANSI standards as well as supplemental data to their Assembly and Use Manuals. Klimer is an accredited training institute recognized by the Scaffold & Access Industry Association (SAIA) to perform training on mast climbers and transport platforms. This training provides operators with a Powered Access License, i.e., PAL card, which is recognized worldwide across industries as proof of platform operator training to the highest standard. It is issued by the International Powered Access Federation (IPAF) to platform operators who successfully complete a training course at an IPAF-approved training center.
Klimer model specific training is offered on or off site and can be tailored to specific training requirements for Occupant, Operator, Installer, Refresher or Train-the-trainer courses. Each participant who finishes receives a certificate of completion and wallet card. All mast climber manufacturers include safety tips and instructions with their equipment, as well as sophisticated planning diagrams and training sessions. Hydro Mobile, based in Quebec, has developed the Hydro Mobile University with internationally recognized training programs and certifications. Safety and Training Director Kevin O’Shea serves on IPAF’s International Mast Climbers Committee and SAIA’s US Mast Climbers Committee; he is an OSHA Federal Alliance Compliance Officer Instructor.
Tight Space Applications
- As architects, designers and building owners envision more creative exteriors in waves and geometrics with courtyards, atriums and odd little configurations, masons are challenged to place equipment, materials and themselves in a position to work effectively. “All jobs should have a good scaffold plan,” Bridges states. “It is even more important with tight spaces to take the time to make sure that everything is planned in advance. Tight spaces like stairwells and shafts require the scaffold to fit perfectly, and you need a mast climber with enough adjustment to fit the wall. A work platform that is too large on an open job is not normally a problem, whereas any work platform that is too large on a tight job site might not fit. Other issues include logistics and handling – how to unload it and move it to the wall. Where there is no way to use a crane or forklift, our EZ Compact Mast Climber can be set up by hand. It is a shaft machine built for masonry. With any elevating platform in a small space, someone has to pay constant attention to obstructions that could hit the platform during ascent and descent, and inside a shaft, there are four sides to watch. It is required that multiple people on the platform assist as spotters in situations where it is difficult for the operator to see everything.”
The same production and safety benefits of mast climbers on spacious exteriors can also be provided in tight installations. “Stairwell and elevator shafts are great examples of tight spaces that are easily accessed using mast climbers,” says Russell. “It’s much easier to enter a shaft from a safe level and ride the mast climber to your work location. There are also safety and production gains when multiple trades can work from the same platform system. Materials transport and ability to infinitely adjust the working platform height favor mast climbers for both interior and exterior working elevations.”
Klimer embraces a motivation fueled by curiosity and the question “What’s Possible?”. “There are very few places we can’t go,” exclaims Russell. “We have configured our equipment to accommodate round structures, square structures and even wavy structures. Using mast climbers for block stairwell and elevator shaft projects is becoming more widespread, and we provide a combination of machines to maximize production. This changes based on the size and height of the shaft. If required, work can be done from the interior in a shaft or water tower, as an example. We’ve had a few projects recently in downtown core areas where there have been transit systems and neighboring buildings within a few feet of where we installed the equipment.”
Non-Stop Scaffolding in Shreveport, La., touts the savings of its much less expensive and just as efficient elevating scaffolding for tight spaces as well as jobs up to 552 feet high. The company introduced the use of independent towers in 1975 and believes much of its cost savings is found in the simplicity of it. “Gas engines, hydraulics, batteries, belts, fluid and myriad components of mechanically powered mast climbers all require much more attention and expense in terms of maintenance and repair,” explains owner Justin Breithaupt. “The low tech approach, ease of transport, fast set-up, 7-foot mast modules and affordability make Non-Stop an extremely attractive small space option.”
“A tight space usually requires an exact fit,” Bridges says. “You don’t have the luxury of too much scaffold running past the wall. One of the services that EZ Scaffold provides is CAD layouts for our customers (and potential customers) to help them budget their equipment needs. This makes sure that you have what you need and when you get it on the job, it is going to fit. A major issue with tight spaces and elevating work platforms is obstructions. It is of the utmost importance to inspect the line of travel before raising or lowering the platform. It may be necessary to have multiple personnel on the platform as spotters to make sure the platform does not get hung up. Another issue is board lap. Boards are a primary cause of accidents on scaffold. A proper board lap as well as securing the boards against accidental movement is as important as ever. A little planning goes a long way to getting work started and keeping workers productive and safe.”
Mast climbers in all their configurations are here to stay. Whether working on buildings, bridges, skyscrapers or glorious high rise condos, masons need to be positioned correctly to do their jobs efficiently. From stately white pine trees to towering webs of steel, the mast concept remains a fascinating vertical conduit for lifting people and materials to higher places.
Words: Joanne M. Anderson
Photos: EZ Scaffold, Klimer
Joanne M. Anderson is a freelance writer in southwest Virginia. www.jmawriter.com
For the thrill of it, you can go along with this mast climber on a very tall ship from the safety of your chair.
The KlimerLite is a product that permits most of the components to be installed by hand where cranes and large equipment cannot go. It fits through standard size doors and can reach up to 45 feet with a maximum platform span of 102 feet. It travels 39 feet per minute and carries up to 6,000 pounds. “It’s important to have an installation plan and a jobsite hazard analysis before the work gets started,” cautions Russell. “Agree on a system for communication and signaling while installing and working on the equipment. Also determine the safest ways to enter and exit the platform system. It’s not necessary to load the platform to capacity in a tight space. Labor and production savings will be gained by travel speed.”
One of the best sources of information, demand and feedback for any product comes directly from the end user. “The EZ Compact was built from a demand for a mast climber that can be installed in and, more importantly, dismantled to get out of shafts. Every job is fast track these days, and many times the general contractor wants the building to start before the shafts are finished, which eliminates the ability to scaffold from the outside,” relates Bridges. “The EZ Compact Mast Climber is designed with a compact base on casters that can fit through a standard door with a frame. It has 2-foot decks that two men can put on by hand to fit any dimension, even the smallest of elevator shafts. Even though it can be set up by hand, it is not a light duty mast climber. It is made with the same heavy-duty components of our standard masonry mast climbers, just cut down to make it manageable by hand. It has a 10,000-lb capacity. A great advantage is that the components are interchangeable with our other products. It uses the same tower, climbing components and accessories. It can also use the same cantilever decks as the other EZ Mast Climbers so it can be used on the outside of the building as a normal mast climber.”