Heavy Equipment Operators (Except Crane) - What They Do

Heavy equipment operators operate heavy equipment used in the construction and maintenance of roads, bridges, airports, gas and oil pipelines, tunnels, buildings and other structures; in surface mining and quarrying activities; and in material handling work. They are employed by construction companies, heavy equipment contractors, public works departments and pipeline, logging, cargo-handling and other companies.

Job duties

This group performs some or all of the following duties:

  • Operate heavy equipment such as backhoes, bulldozers, loaders and graders to excavate, move, load and grade earth, rock, gravel or other materials during construction and related activities
  • Operate bulldozers or other heavy equipment to clear brush and stumps prior to logging activities and to build roads at logging and surface mining sites
  • Operate heavy equipment with pile driver head to drive piling into earth to provide support for buildings, bridges or other structures
  • Operate heavy dredging equipment to deepen waterways or reclaim earth fill
  • Operate heavy paving and surfacing equipment to lay, spread or compact concrete, asphalt and other surface materials during highway and road construction
  • Operate power shovels to excavate rock, ore or other materials from open-pit mines, strip mines, quarries or construction pits
  • Operate heavy equipment to move, load and unload cargo
  • Conduct pre-operational checks on equipment and clean, lubricate and refill equipment.

Job titles

  • backhoe operator
  • bulldozer operator
  • heavy equipment operator
  • excavator operator
  • gradall operator
  • grader operator
  • heavy equipment operator apprentice
  • loader operator - construction
  • side boom tractor operator
  • surface mining equipment operator
Employment Requirements

This is what you typically need for the job:

  • Some secondary school education is required.
  • Completion of a one- to two-year apprenticeship program or Some high school, college or industry courses in heavy equipment operating combined with on-the-job training are required.
  • Trade certification is compulsory in Quebec and available, but voluntary, in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
  • Internal company certification may be required by some employers.

Essential Skills


  • Read short text entries on drawings and forms, e.g. read notes on maps to learn about safety hazards. (1)
  • Read Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) to learn how to safely handle explosives and dangerous chemicals. (2)
  • Read bulletins, memos and notices, e.g. read safety bulletins to learn about hazardous stretches of road construction and memos to learn about changes to operating procedures. (2)
  • Read a variety of set-up, operating and maintenance manuals, e.g. read manuals to learn how to operate equipment, such as earthmovers, grapplers, graders and skidders. (3)
  • May read regulations that relate to the use of heavy equipment and the transportation of dangerous goods. (3)

Document use

  • Identify icons used in the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS), fire control and other hazard-management systems, e.g. scan symbols found on fire extinguishers to identify their various classes. (1)
  • Enter data, such as readings and quantities, into tally sheets and logbooks. (1)
  • Scan gauges and digital readouts for operating data, such as revolutions per minute, speeds, electrical readings and temperatures. (1)
  • Complete a variety of forms, e.g. complete equipment inspection forms by recording the condition of components, such as tires, belts, hoses and illumination systems. (2)
  • May interpret surveyor charts to determine grades and amount of material to be cut along roadways. (2)
  • Study assembly and construction drawings, e.g. study assembly drawings to learn how to complete minor repairs and construction drawings to determine the locations of utility-hole covers, hydro wires, gas lines and catch basins. (3)


  • May make brief entries in log books, e.g. write brief comments in log books to describe work performed and incidents that may have occurred. (1)
  • Write short comments in forms, e.g. describe results of inspections on equipment inspection reports. (1)
  • May write accident reports to describe events leading up to accidents and actions taken afterwards. (2)


  • Take a variety of measurements using basic tools, e.g. measure the lengths, widths and depths of excavations using measuring wheels and tape measures. (1)
  • Compare a variety of readings to operating norms and manufacturer specifications, e.g. compare engines' temperature readings to norms to determine whether they are running too hot. (1)
  • Compare measurements of slopes, depths, widths and lengths to project specifications. (1)
  • Estimate distances, e.g. estimate distances between obstacles and the width of ramps. (1)
  • May calculate the number of loads needed to remove or replace excavated materials. They consider the load capacities of trucks and rates of material swell and compaction. (2)
  • Estimate load requirements, e.g. estimate how many truck loads are required to backfill excavations. (2)
  • May calculate and verify invoice amounts, e.g. calculate payments to be received from customers based on different types and volumes of loads and distances traveled. (3)
  • May calculate the slope ratios of construction projects, such as ditches, culverts and roadways. (3)

Oral communication

  • Listen to announcements made over two-way radios. (1)
  • Give directions to co-workers, e.g. explain to co-workers where they should stand while they assist with unloading. (1)
  • Speak with supervisors, contractors and union dispatchers about a wide range of topics, e.g. discuss road conditions and schedules with dispatchers. (2)
  • Exchange technical information with repairers, e.g. provide descriptions of equipment malfunctions to help heavy duty mechanics troubleshoot faults. (2)


  • Encounter equipment failures, e.g. hydraulic pumps break down. They stop the machines and advise dispatchers and equipment repairers of the breakdowns. They use other equipment if the faults cannot be repaired quickly. (1)
  • Choose methods to operate heavy equipment. They consider the types of equipment they are operating, weather and soil conditions. (1)
  • Refer to lines on the ground and scale drawings to locate underground utility lines. (1)
  • Consult operator manuals for information on equipment, such as where specific parts are located and machine maintenance requirements. (1)
  • May accidentally come into contact with utility lines. Operators stop their machines, inspect the damages and speak with utility companies and supervisors. They speak with emergency personnel if the contacts resulted in spills, leaks or the energization of equipment. (2)
  • Select the order of tasks and their priorities, e.g. decide excavation sequences. (2)
  • May select the frequency of preventative maintenance performed on equipment. (2)
  • Decide to report unsafe work conditions. They act on requirements to report unsafe work conditions by discussing concerns and decisions with co-workers and supervisors. (2)
  • Evaluate the safety performance of equipment. They consider the equipment's ability to safely grade, haul and level material. (2)
  • Evaluate the severity of equipment faults. They consider factors, such as readings, noise levels, pressures, temperatures, vibrations and odours. (2)
  • Receive work assignments from forepersons who may also plan the order of tasks for completing jobs. Some heavy equipment operators may determine the order of tasks on their own, considering such factors as terrain and the schedules of truck drivers and other suppliers. They co-ordinate their work with their co-workers. They may re-prioritize tasks in response to equipment failures and changing weather conditions. (2)
  • Encounter difficult manoeuvering situations, where space to move machinery is tight and objects stand in the way of completing jobs. They call upon spotters and other machine operators to assist in critical situations, such as placing pipelines under existing telephone cables and power lines. (3)
  • Evaluate the safety of work sites and conditions. They observe elements, such as available space to manoeuvre, locations of guardrails, soil conditions, weather and lighting conditions and the slopes of roadways and ramps. (3)

Digital technology

  • Use calculators and personal digital assistant (PDA) devices to complete numeracy-related tasks, such as calculating material requirements. (1)
  • May use global position system (GPS) devices to locate elevations and coordinates. (1)
  • May operate electronic scales to determine the weight of loads. (1)
  • May use word processing software to write letters to customers, prepare job estimates and create invoices. (2)
  • May use spreadsheet software to tally costs for job estimates and invoices. (2)
  • May use specialized databases to access job assignments, input data into forms and retrieve technical drawings. (2)
  • May use communication software to exchange email with customers, suppliers and co-workers. (2)
  • May use the Internet to access training courses and seminars offered by trainers, suppliers, employers and associations. (2)
  • May use laser grade control systems for real time information about where materials are to be moved. (2)

Other Essential Skills:

Working with Others

Heavy equipment operators mainly work independently. However, on construction sites, they are members of teams, co-ordinating job tasks with others and being aware of where other crew members and machines are at all times. They also work alone when, for example, preparing work sites for other workers. They work with partners on jobs that require more than one machine, such as when grading roads.

Continuous Learning

Heavy equipment operators may take courses to learn new regulations or health and safety procedures. They obtain or renew certificates, such as Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) certificates, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certificates and radio operating and driver's licences. Those who work in unionized environments have access to union-based training programs.