How safe is safe when it comes to crane operation?

By D.Ann Shiffler07 May 2008

J.R. Williams at the East Texas Crane Academy overseeing hands-on crane instruction

J.R. Williams at the East Texas Crane Academy overseeing hands-on crane instruction

Safe crane operation is in the national spotlight. All aspects of crane operation, inspection, training and certification are under the microscope. D. Ann Shiffler reports

A news article describing the March tower crane accident in New York City compared the scene to a horror movie. The tragedy in Manhattan and a subsequent fatal crane accident days later in Miami have stimulated the intensity of the national debate regarding all aspects of jobsite safety and crane operation.

Crane training businesses report that their phones have been ringing off the wall with old and new customers pursuing additional training for their operators and advice about how to ensure that they are doing all they can do to ramp up safety and mitigate risk.

“Our phone is ringing quite heavily,” says Bud Wilson, president of The Crane School, based in DeLand, FL. “People are looking for additional training.”

Wilson, a former crane operator, and his team travel all over the country offering operator training and certification classes on tower cranes, mobile cranes and overhead cranes.

“We do crane operator certification through NCCCO which is the leading certification program and is the only one that OSHA acknowledges,” says Wilson. “Once an operator is certified, he has five years before he has to get recertified. Some companies choose to require on-going training after certification and others hope they will just stay lucky.”

When it comes to training, there never seems to be enough in the budget for training until after an accident. “The first thing in the budget to get cut is training,” he says. “And then something happens and then there's always enough time and money to do it right the second time, but never the first time.”

Certifi cation debate

When a large-scale accident occurs, the operator certification debate begins, again. Only 15 states and six municipalities require operator certification, including New York City. Florida currently does not have legislation in place to require operator certification, although not for lack of trying. “It's been on the back burner in Florida and other states for a long time,” Wilson says. “I think this time around we will see some legislation out of Florida.”

Wilson says that operator training is a rewarding job and that he enjoys teaching operators about the finer points of operating a crane. “This is dangerous and expensive equipment,” he says. “As an operator, you need to act ahead of the crane.”

Wilson believes that the best teachers are those who have spent their own time in the operator seat. He has committed to memory OSHA regulations, citing different rules and regulations, and understanding the law and every related detail. “It's a shame that someone has to get hurt and people get killed to bring it to light what can happen instead of doing it ahead of time,” he says. “In my 20 years of doing crane safety, I don't know if I have prevented an accident, but I'd like to think I did.”

Wilson has a high regard for the companies that have a safety culture. But there are still a lot of companies that operate on a wing and a prayer. “There are some companies that will rent you a crane if you have a valid CDL driver's license and proof of insurance,” he says. “That's about as scary as it gets.”

Training empowers an operator to assure that the crane he is operating is safe and ultimately that the jobsite itself is safe. “The operator should have the final say as to the safety of an operation,” Wilson says.

Certifi cation demand

Depending on the area of the country, many crane safety companies are struggling to meet demand for their services. J.R. Williams, president and owner of La Porte, TX-based East Texas Crane Academy, says he struggles to get all the crane operators certified who are seeking certification. Demand for his services is primarily driven by insurance companies and petrochemical industry facilities. More insurance companies are demanding that the businesses they insure have certified operators, and petrochemical companies on the Gulf Coast require that the crane operators that work in their facilities are CCO certified, he says.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the drive is mandates for certification whether by a state or a facility,” he says. “I don't see a whole lot of employers getting on the bandwagon without some sort of drive, whether it be their insurance company driving it or customers driving it or a state or federal mandate. There's not a whole lot of volunteerism.”

Often, a company's focus on crane and rigging safety will be relative to how long it has been since a major accident, not how long it has been since operators and riggers were given instruction on safety and best practices. If the upper management was not there at the time of the last accident, they are often less concerned about safety than a management team that has been through the experience of a devastating accident. “The urgency is not there,” says Williams.

“When budgets are cut, unfortunately training and safety seem to take the first cuts,” he says. “And this is absolutely the worst cut.”

New programs pending

An NCCCO Commissioner, Williams is pleased to see new certification programs for riggers and signalpersons in the works. “We're getting close to a finished product in rigger and signalperson certification,” he says. “There will be a big demand for this certification. The bottom line is that you can rest assured that any state, employer or facility that requires the operator to be certified will eventually require the rigger and signal person be certified, as well.”

While state legislatures slowly wrestle with mandating crane operator certification, Williams says OSHA could also beef up requirements. “OSHA has the tools to make things better if they will hurry up,” he says. “The SC&RA has been on top of this. It's been four years since the C-DAC committee finished its task of a rewrite of 19.2550. It has the tools to make things better because it mandates certification and training, and puts the monkey on the supervisors' and employers' back, where it should be. If this were written into law then all these people who are dodging certification wouldn't have any choice and have to step up to the plate. I understand that there's bureaucracy in Washington, D.C., but there seems to be some dragging of feet.”

Williams offers NCCCO certification for operators throughout the country, but he says 80% of his clients are from his general area of operation in Texas and the Gulf Coast region, which he terms “the Petrochemical Belt.” Shell Oil, Exxon and Dow Chemical and other plants in the vicinity require NCCCO certified crane operators.

“When you are operating in a petrochemical facility, you have a whole lot more exposure to a catastrophic incident as opposed to new construction,” says Williams. “That's the reason that these facilities do all they can do to make sure the crane operator and other craftsmen have been through training before they can work in that facility. On a construction jobsite, there aren't as many requirements and there can be a lot of 'lose cannons,' so to speak.”

Williams says that's not to say that petrochemical plants are accident free. “I do not have the data to make a comparison but I would think that the number of crane related accidents within the fences of a petrochemical plant are way lower than outside of those fences.”

Williams and other instructors interviewed for this article report that the average crane operator who hasn't been certified has little concept of industry best practices. “Unfortunately, they are out there winging it,” says Williams. “That's the good part about the NCCCO certification. In order for them to pass the test they have to have a really good grasp of the rules and regulations, and know and understand the industry's best practices.”

Orlando, FL-based Crane Inspection & Certification Bureau, (CICB) specializes in training operators on the equipment they will be running. John Cole, general manager of CICB, travels all around the country training operators. Before becoming a crane safety instructor, Cole had a 28 year career in the Navy Seabees, which is known as the Navy's construction force. He was an equipment operator, ran cranes and was responsible for load testing, training and the like.

More pro-active

In assessing the “national dialogue” regarding safe crane operator, Cole says “the larger companies have taken a proactive course. More companies are buying into and supporting the CCO program. More companies in the industry are buying into operator certification and investing in training.”

The problem is that often this dialogue doesn't reach the smaller companies. “Cranes are getting more technical and complicated, which means more training is needed,” Cole says. “These new cranes have all types of safety devices built in, but unfortunately some of the buyers don't really read the operator manuals or require that their operators be tested on all the elements of this new equipment.”

Also, Cole says that sometimes operators rely too heavily on a crane's safety attributes. He has trained lots of operators who can't correctly interpret the load chart on a given new crane. “We find a lot of operators are relying on the LMI system on a crane to assure a safe pick,” he says. “But if you put in the wrong information you get the wrong information back. So, operators need training on not only how to operate the machine but also on the indicating systems and safety items.”

Cole says the need for operator training is “across the board,” rather than in a specific class or capacity of crane. “A lot of people think boom trucks and the smaller carry decks you don't need training,” he says. “Carry deck cranes are probably among the most abused cranes there are.”

The recent “media frenzy” after the two highly publicized accidents in New York and Miami is a typical reaction. He says that there will likely be a lot more discussion about crane inspections than in the past.

But there is much more to accident prevention than operator certification and training. CICB offers safety analysis and review as one of its services.

“Our seven-point evaluation system will identify any possible problem areas and suggest feasible solutions to correct it,” says Cole. “CICB's team examines your entire material handling operation from an independent, third-party viewpoint.”

All too often, some crane owning companies view safety as a necessary evil, rather than an investment in the security of the company. “You should look at safety as an investment in the company,” says Cole. “You don't realize the hidden costs of an accident until you are faced with one. The return on your investment is increased productivity and not having accidents.”

Brian Doonan, president and owner of Scottsdale, AZ-based Equipment Safety Services Inc., has trained some 30,000 students in his years as a crane safety educator. Before that, he worked for a major crane manufacturer. His company performs CCO certification in six southwestern states and offers crane and rigging safety courses for municipalities and general contractors in construction and mining.

“The thing I'm pleased to hear is when an operator tells me that he is more conscientious about safety because he understands the laws, capacity charts and setting up machines a lot more than he did before training,” he says. “Operators that are trained are not just pulling the levers, but they are thinking about the operation, and they are much more conscious of safe operation. Years ago, it was more of a 'just get her done attitude.'”

Doonan remembers back to the '70s and '80s when the crane manufacturers offered more training than today. “There's not much of that any more,” he says. “Liability has a lot to do with it.”

Doonan's biggest concern is that just CCO certification is not enough for most operators. “There's still so much to be taught, so much to learn,” he says. “We don't teach them how to put a jib on a crane, how to put wire rope on a drum. There's a lot more hands-on instruction needed. Plus, every crane is different, every brand is different. Most operators can't just jump off a Link-Belt and jump on a Grove and run them the same.”

Healthy operators

Another issue of safety that is often not considered is the health of the operator. For pilots, health screening is important, but for a crane operator, who is often operating just as big a machine and as expensive a machine as an airplane, health screening is mandatory. “Operators need to be screened for hearing, vision and even diabetes,” says Doonan. “We've seen cases of hearing loss and diabetes pop up.”

Doonan says that in the western states, more operators are certified than in other areas because of more strict laws, especially in California. He is a bit concerned about the lack of training required for self-erecting tower cranes. “The portable cranes are a huge niche right now,” he says. “But there's not much formal training going on with those machines.”

A good thing in terms of safety, Doonan says, is that most of the cranes out working today are relatively new and in good condition. “There's not a lot crummy cranes out there anymore,” he says.

He is impressed with all the safety attributes now standard on a crane. “Still, all the new technology means that the operator needs training,” he says. “More training is needed on these newer technologies, these more sophisticated LMI systems.”

New technologies

Keeping up with these new technologies is a challenge for the industry, and especially for the crane operator. “There's a void in advanced training,” Doonan says. “Some of these computer systems require some serious training and hands-on computer training.”

The goal of the Oklahoma City-based Oklahoma College of Construction (OCC) is to train and bring new operators into the industry. “The main thing that distinguishes us is our core focus is on training and bringing new operators into the industry,” says Wade Vakulick, director of industry relations and safety.

Vakulick says the OCC offers intense, onsite six-week entry level operator courses for its students. “Demand for our services is very high,” he says. “Our students are in school from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. every day learning rigging, signaling, crane safety, crane operation, crane set-up and tear down. It's a pretty massive course. These are the folks who drive past a construction site – a young person looking for a career or an older person looking to switch careers – and maybe they see something they want to get involved in.”

Besides the entry level course, OCC offers CCO testing and has a staff of CCO certified instructors and practical examiners. Beyond that course of study, OCC also offers off-site corporate training.

Vakulick says OCC has found that there are lots of experienced crane operators who seek more in-depth training on the cranes they operate. Recently, OCC has been responding to requests from companies to offer more CCO training and continuing education for crane operators. “We're getting a lot more calls from employers who have guys in the field who are not certified,” he says.

Vakulick says the OCC is running 85.7% of placement with its graduates. “Most of them are finding work right away because they are well trained,” he says. “Our entry level crane program is filled every time we start a new class.”

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