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The Best Hand Signals for Spotters and Heavy Equipment Operators
7 minute read
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Tim Forestell
December 15, 2022

The Most Common Hand Signals for Heavy Equipment Operators and Spotters

The role of a spotter is one of the most important on a construction site. At any given moment, there could be anywhere from one to several pieces of heavy machinery getting from point A to point B. Spotters help ensure that the equipment operators navigate the site safely.

Because most construction sites are loud, hand signals were made to make the lives of spotters, also could ground guides, and heavy equipment operators much easier. We will cover the most common operator hand signals for earthmoving and dirt equipment and the times when a ground guide and a signal person are most needed.

The Most Common Construction Hand Signals for Spotters

Before going into the common ground guide signals it should be understood that these change from site to site. While some are consistent, there is no set standard for all of them. Make sure to speak with the heavy equipment operators, project managers, site supers, operating engineers, or fellow spotters beforehand to get on the same page.

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Lastly, these spotter hand signals are mostly for earthmoving and dirt equipment like skid steers, backhoes, and mini-excavators, not for hoists and cranes which are more extensive.

Stopping Hand Signals

There are two common arm signals for stopping that spotters should know. The first is having your arm up in front of you in a fist position. The second is when you extend your arms straight to your side and slowly bring them together until they make a cross over your head. In this case, the distance between your arms should reflect the distance to cover until the operator stops the machine.

closed fist
Spotter signal for stopping a machine.

These two stopping signals are typically used for different purposes. The first is for when there is no real danger of crashing into something else on the construction project while the second can be utilized when signaling how far the driver is to another structure.

The standard emergency stopping signal is when a ground guide is excessively waving their hands over their head. If this is used, the equipment operator should immediately stop and shut down the machine until further signals are given.

Moving Forward and Backing Up Hand Signals

Instructing an operator to move forward and backward is one of the most simple hand signals for drivers to understand. The spotter raises both arms and swings their arms towards their head and chest with the palms aimed in the direction that the driver should go.

Turning signals are also pretty simple. To communicate that you'd like the heavy equipment operator to turn, point one arm in the direction that you'd like to turn and swing your other arm up and down until you want them to stop turning. For example, if you want to signal someone to turn left, put your left arm to the side and swing your other arm up and down.

Hand Signals for Diggers, Booms, and Sticks

Primarily for equipment with boom attachments, these arm and hand signals are for lowering and raising the boom as well as extending the stick or dipper.

For lifting and lowering the boom arm, simply use one finger, usually the index or thumb, to point in the direction you'd like the arm to go. Depending on the preference of the site super, prefer a rotating or twirling finger to signify whether you'd like the boom or stick to go up or down.

index finger pointing up
Most common spotter hand signal to indicate lifting a boom.

To signify that you'd like the operator to bring the arm or stick in, extend your arm out at a 90-degree angle from your shoulder and bend your elbow and bring your arm towards your waist. To signal that the operator to extend the boom, start your signal with your elbow bent and towards your waist, and extend it out until it's at that 90-degree position.

To motion you want the machine to swing, extend your arm out in the direction that you want the machine to swing.

Spotter Signals for Bucket Attachments

To signal that you want bucket attachments to curl or uncurl, you can use either a hand or arm movement.

When using your hand, you want to signal the operator to curl the bucket or attachment by using an open palm, facing up, and curling your fingers towards yourself. You should avoid motioning with your curled fingers facing the operator as it will look too much like the stop signal. To signal that you want to uncurl the bucket, you can just lay your hand flat.

If you are on a job where using your whole arm is the signal, to open a bucket, you want to have your arm extended at a 90-degree angle with your hand pointed down and then straighten your hand out. To close the bucket, have your hand straightened out and point it to the ground.

Signals for Grading

Lastly, for grading jobs, there are a few good signals that spotters can give the equipment operators to help them out, especially on machines that don't have the newest and best grading technology.

To motion for a grade on an incline, tilt your hand slightly up; for a flat grade, have your hand flat; and for a declining grade, tilt your hand slightly down. This will direct the equipment operator on the approach they should take to make the grade perfect.

Hand Signals for Driving with Materials

This is where hand signals start to get tricky. While most of the previous signals are common across job sites, material hand signals can be different from company to company or even manager to manager.

However, it is recommended that construction sites do create their own signals for equipment operators and spotters to make things run more efficiently. Here are some good examples of hand signals for different materials that we took from Diesel and Iron's video on the same topic:

  • To instruct your operator to get more pipe, make an O with your hand

  • For peastone, use the "okay" signal where you have three fingers pointing up and you put your index and thumb together

  • And lastly, for sand, put all four fingers on your thumb and rub them together

A hand doing the okay signal with thumb and index together and three other fingers pointing up
An example of a construction hand signal for peastone

Again, these material-handling signals are not set in stone but can be useful for any equipment operator and spotter to use, depending on the materials at hand. This will drastically speed up communication on the job site, improve site safety, and make construction workers more efficient.

Why Spotters and Ground Guides Are Important

Equipment rollovers and accidents are one of the most common causes of fatalities in the construction industry. That's why having spotters guide operators around is crucial. It helps prevent accidents and keeps everyone who operates heavy equipment and those around it safe.

Ground guiding is especially important in the following scenarios:

  • When there is a lot of traffic on a site including both equipment and people walking around

  • When there are lots of overhead obstructions like structures or power lines

  • When a machine needs to go backward and visibility is low

  • When that machine is driving near an excavation site

Some best practices for spotters include:

  • Agreeing on hand signals before moving materials or machinery

  • Always being visible to the operator and having a good vantage point of the work area

  • Talking with the operator beforehand about where the blind spots of the machine are

  • Never guiding the operator over other workers

  • Watching for overhead obstructions and navigating around them

  • Warning workers who are in the vicinity that you are coming through

  • Making sure signal lights and brake lights are working properly

Having dedicated spotters on site is one of the most important components of operating safe construction work. To get more tips about how to work on a construction site straight to your inbox, subscribe to our newsletter below.

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Excavator image
13 ton - 80 ton
High Reach, Long Reach, Wheeled
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1 yds - 7 yrds
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Tim Forestell
Tim Forestell is one of DOZR’s co-founders and CCO. Tim got started in the industry as VP Operations for Forestell Landscaping before founding DOZR with Kevin and Erin. Aside from the amazing team at DOZR, his favourite thing about DOZR are the customers. Working with DOZR renters every day gives him a peek at the evolution of different projects and hearing stories about projects being developed from start to finish.
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