To operate heavy machinery, you may need special training and/or a commercial driver’s license.
If you’re considering a career as a heavy equipment operator, you’re probably wondering what sort of heavy equipment operator certification or heavy equipment operator license you need and how to get it. The answer to the first question depends in part on the type of equipment you want to operate and, in some cases, where you live. Read on to learn more.
Who needs a heavy equipment operator license?
No national or industry standard for a heavy equipment operator license exists. The term “heavy equipment operator license” is often used interchangeably with “heavy equipment operator certification,” which leads to an operator card you can show an employer. Many employers prefer to hire workers with an operator card, but it’s not a legal requirement in most cases.
That said, you may need a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to operator certain pieces of heavy equipment, per federal government requirements. Some states, and major cities such as New York and Chicago, also have their own heavy operator licensing requirements.
The lack of an official standard licensing requirement doesn’t mean anyone can hop on an excavator or rough terrain forklift and start operating it. Nationally, here’s what’s currently legally required to operate heavy equipment. However, since these requirements can change from time to time, you'll want to check the most current federal and state regulations before you operate heavy equipment.
Commercial driver’s licenses
If you’re operating a piece of equipment that has a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of more than 26,000 pounds or a trailer that weighs more than 10,000 pounds, you’ll need a commercial driver’s license. The standards for a CDL are set at the federal level, but CDLs are issued by states. Even small excavators and bulldozers often exceed this GVWR and therefore require a CDL.
OSHA crane requirements
OSHA requires certification for people who operate a crane or other machinery that can lift more than 2,000 pounds. There are some exceptions, including side boom cranes and derricks, and you may need different certifications based on the type or capacity of the crane you’ll be operating, so it’s best to discuss certification requirements with your employer or potential employer.
Crane operator certification requires passing a written exam and a practical exam administered by an accredited testing organization. Other options accepted by OSHA are getting trained through an audited employer program or being licensed by a city or state whose licensing requirements meet OSHA’s minimum requirements.
Can you operate heavy equipment without a license?
Some types of heavy equipment, including smaller backhoes and skid steers, can currently be operated without a license. OSHA does require training and evaluation for operators of powered industrial trucks (also known as forklifts), which a training center or a knowledgeable and experienced supervisor can provide.
If the equipment you’re using doesn’t require a CDL or crane operator certification, you don’t currently need a license or certification according to the federal government. But again, many employers require that operators have training, and they may ask for an operator card that shows you’ve had it.
Heavy equipment operator license requirements
Since there’s no standard heavy operator equipment license, there are no standard requirements. However, to get a CDL or become a licensed crane operator you must:
Be at least 18 years old, and 21 if you plan to drive across state lines
Have a valid driver’s license
For a CDL, complete Entry-Level Driver Training (there are some exceptions, such as for people with military training)
Pass written and practical testing
Pass a vision test and secure a medical certificate showing you’re healthy enough to operate
Adhere to substance abuse policies outlined by your licensing agency. Often this means abstaining from all illicit drugs and from cannabis.
How to get a heavy equipment operator license or certification
In order to get your CDL or crane operator license, you’ll need to follow the requirements for those licenses. Prospective crane operators need to take a course that prepares them to pass written and practical tests.
To get certified to operate other pieces of heavy equipment, including excavators, boom lifts, scissor lifts, skid steers and loaders, you can become an apprentice and learn the skills you need to pass a certification test through on-the-job training. Or you can get trained and certified through a trade school, a heavy equipment operator school or a training academy such as United Academy, the training branch of United Rentals, which offers a mix of online and in-person courses.
After you’ve completed training and passed a test, you become certified and are given an operator’s card. But training shouldn’t end there. Once you’ve been operating for some time, you may want to take refresher courses or get recertified in order to improve your skills and stay up to date on the latest equipment technology and regulations. Getting trained on additional pieces of equipment can make you even more appealing to employers.