Smooth. Loader controls and styling (top), compared with the 1990s (bottom) (Photos courtesy Volvo Construction Equipment North America Inc.).

When Charles “Dub” Norris went to work as a heavy equipment operator in the early 1960s, he sat for hours each day muscling hoist levers and clutches in the open air through rain, snow, heat and dust. “You would blow your nose after 12 hours of work and get mud balls out,” says the 61-year-old risk manager for Memphis, Tenn.-based Barnhart Crane and Rigging Co. Today, Norris says, operating machinery is more “like sitting at home watching TV.”

Equipment pilots are some of the most comfortable—and entertained—people on a jobsite. Inside the confines of equipment cabs, encased in a wall of glass, are cup holders, climate controls, compact-disc players, suspension seats, joysticks and color computer screens.

Norris

Operator stations have made strides even in the last 15 years, notes Nick Tullo, a loader product specialist for the U.S. arm of Sweden-based Volvo Construction Equipment. Some machines are coming out this year with no steering wheels. More have pilot-operated controls, which eliminate full-flow hydraulics in the cab and cut down noise, heat and sore hands. Filtered and pressurized air keeps out dust. “I would rather be inside that cab any day,” Tullo says.

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  • Machines made before the 1970s, when the federal government started requiring roll-over and falling-object protection structures, offered little or no comfort. “When I was an operator, it was kind of a macho deal to come home dusty and dirty,” says Cork Peterson, vice president of Peterson Contractors Inc., Reinbeck, Iowa. Today, he says, “you just take better care of your investment and your people. It pays dividends.”

    However, not all machines are cool and comfortable. While 60% of construction machines are made each year with enclosed cabs, the rest are left open to the elements, according to one manufacturer. Environmental cabs, which add $5,000 or more to the cost, vary between climate, machine and owner.

    Exposed. Many machines still have open cabs. (Photo by Tudor Hampton for ENR)

    “Some people want it and some people don’t,” says Charles R. Yengst, a market researcher in Wilton, Conn. Contractors argue that operators who climb into a skid-steer loader a few times a day don’t need the same amenities as a person sitting in a crawler dozer for 12 hours. Instead, some firms provide tents where workers can cool off. In southern states, open cabs are more common because work schedules are staggered to beat the heat.

    Many tiny vehicles like mini excavators simply don’t have enough space for extra cab components, and if they do, the price point is far more shocking on a $20,000 excavator than a $200,000 one, Yengst notes. What’s more, plenty of old-fashioned contractors would rather have operators miserable than comfortable. “You still have some old time hard-liners,” says Jim Yasko, assistant training coordinator for operating engineers’ Local 150 in Plainfield, Ill.

    Despite advancements, suppliers say amenities often take a back seat to price. “Comfort does matter,” Tullo says.