Lucy in the Sky

Lucy in the sky 1

Tower crane operator Lucy Balta is one woman who has proven she’s capable of doing the heavy lifting.

It’s 7 am and Lucy Balta is ready to commence work. But she won’t be taking a lift to the 46th floor of a Melbourne skyscraper. Instead she is kitted out in her high-visibility vest, steel-capped boots and hard cap and will take the steep 30m climb to where she will sit high above Melbourne’s skyline.

On this day, Balta’s office is the control room at the top of the Built tower crane high above the building site of the Epworth Freemasons Hospital development on the fringe of the city.

“The view is one of the advantages of the job,” Balta says. “Today’s is of the east end of the CBD, including Melbourne’s Fitzroy Gardens and St Patrick’s Cathedral.”

This is a small, seven floor build. “The tallest I’ve worked on was the Scape Apartments which has 48 floors,” Balta says of the building at the corner of Swanston and La Trobe Streets.

But Balta hasn’t always been at the top of the building and trades sector of the construction industry. In 2005, she began as labourer and traffic controller.

“I was green back then,” she says. “Like precast concrete that’s still green and not yet ready for the build, I had a limited skill set.”

But she wasn’t green for long; she soon had her dogman and rigger tickets and began hooking up loads for crane transport around the construction site. She also began directing crane operations and offloading precast concrete panels for the build.

Balta didn’t stop there. “I’ve been crane operator for six years now…..I’m the only female tower crane operator in Melbourne,” she says.

Lifting different loads is a challenge she loves. “Today I’ll be lifting around 2 tonne,” she says. When the steel and concrete panels arrive on site, Balta lifts around 9 tonnes of weight.

“Most tower crane operations are done 80% blind,” says Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) Victorian Branch high-risk trainer and assessor Tony Minchin. The operator can see the wire on the end of the load but cannot see the landing spot. The operator is relying on the directions given from the dogman on the ground.

“Lucy’s challenge is to pick up a load, sometimes 40 floors below her and land it safely on a spot the size of a postage stamp and that requires great skill,” Minchin says.

Balta has had a linear career path from traffic controller to tower crane operator, but her experience is unique.

Although there were 5% more women who trained in the traffic sector of the Victorian Branch of the CFMEU in 2018 compared with 2008, few women progressed to the more skilful work of dogman, rigger or crane operator.

In 2018, there were 1.3 per cent more women trained in these areas than there were in 2008.

CFMEU Victorian Branch women’s Officer Lisa Zanatta says there are a number of reasons for this with casualisation of the workforce one of the biggest factors.

Zanatta is working with the Andrews state government as part of its $585,000 funding initiative to boost the representation of women in the construction industry.

The lion’s share of the funding will be spent on addressing the issues affecting the low numbers of women in our sector,” Zanatta says.

It will predominantly go towards recruitment. “We need to talk to building companies, contractors and sub-contractors to explore ways they can employ women in more secure work so they remain in the industry,” Zanatta says.

“Lucy’s skills can match any bloke in her sector…she is held in very high regard and we want more women to experience similar success.”

While the CFMEU, government and other stakeholders work on improving the number of women in the construction industry, Balta will continue to enjoy the view and perform the job she has set out to do.

“It’s hard work as the build goes up, but when it’s complete, it’s hugely rewarding,” Balta says.


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