Accidents involving construction cranes have dominated U.S. headlines in recent months. In April a tower crane toppled onto a downtown Seattle street, killing four people and injuring three others. Then a few weeks ago, a crane collapsed in Dallas during a windstorm, killing one person, injuring several others and causing extensive damage to a downtown apartment building.
Although the causes of these accidents are under investigation, most crane incidents come down to human error, Alabama-based crane inspector James Pritchett told Construction Dive.
“That can come in many forms, [including] not knowing how to operate a crane properly, not inspecting it properly or not maintaining it properly,” said Pritchett, who has investigated dozens of accidents and now trains crane operators across the Southeast U.S.
In fact, Pritchett said he rarely finds a reason for an accident that is not related to human error.
“I come from an operator background," he said, "so whenever I come to an accident investigation I try my best to find other reasons for the incident, but it’s rarely something besides a problem with the operator."
New OSHA regulations that went into effect in April are designed to minimize accidents by strengthening crane operators’ knowledge and training. The regulations, which revise the way that operators are trained, evaluated and certified, put the responsibility for operator readiness on the employer, according to an OSHA spokesperson. They apply to a range of construction equipment including mobile cranes, tower cranes, service truck cranes, digger derricks and dedicated pile drivers.
Under the rule, crane operators must now be certified or licensed and receive ongoing training to operate new equipment. Operators who were certified before December, however, don't have to be reassessed. Whereas the previous regulations required crane operators to be certified only by the general size and capacity of crane, the new evaluations must rate operators' knowledge and skill based on crane type such as tower crane, mobile crane or overhead crane.
Like many regulatory changes, the revised rule comes with added costs. Although OSHA said that the rule is expected to result in a net annual cost savings, the agency determined that the industry's total annual cost of compliance, which involves performing operator competency evaluations, documenting the evaluations and providing additional training to operators, comes out to around $1.6 million.
Pritchett worries that some companies might try to skirt the new regulations in order to save time or money. “You have to make it cost-efficient enough so that people aren’t reluctant to doing it,” he said.
What you need to know
Cranes are a ubiquitous presence on U.S. commercial construction sites, especially in urban areas where infill and high-rise work are common. Rider Levett Bucknall’s Crane Index for North America found that cities like Seattle and Chicago have experienced a boom in the number of tower cranes operating on construction sites in recent years.
Lift operations on most jobsites are performed by subcontractors that provide their own equipment and employees, but some general construction firms run their own cranes. While the focus of OSHA rules are predominantly on the crane operator’s employer, construction companies that subcontract crane work can still bear responsibility when an incident occurs.
For instance, the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries is investigating the roles of five contractors considered to be responsible for the Seattle crane collapse, including the general contractor, three crane subcontractors and the crane’s owner.
About 44 people are killed and 175 injured each year in U.S. crane accidents.
Bureau of Labor Statistics
There are several steps general contractors and developers should take in order to safeguard their jobsites and reduce risk, experts say.
For one, National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators (NCCCO) CEO Graham Brent told Construction Dive that if he were a contractor subcontracting crane work, he would ask the employer of the crane operator if they had "qualified" their operators in accordance with the new rule.
“I would want to be sure that I had in my agreement with whoever is the employer of the crane operator a requirement that they provide qualified crane operators on site in accordance with OSHA regulations," Brent said.
This involves determining if an operator is certified and that operator evaluations are documented and available on the jobsite, either in paper or electronic format, he added. In addition, the certification must be provided by a testing program that conforms to National Commission of Certifying Agencies (NCCA) or the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards. These include NCCCO; the Crane Institute of America; the Operating Engineers Certification Program; and the National Center for Construction Education and Research.
Brent noted that the new rules describe crane evaluators as “qualified,” but the language is different from OSHA’s commonly used “qualified person” rules. “Some people are getting confused because OSHA already has a definition of a qualified person, but that definition does not apply in this rule,” he said. “It’s very important that those involved understand that.”
The bottom line, experts say, is that for the most part, responsibility for following the new regulations falls with the company that pays the operator’s salary. That means that GCs and developers aren't always off the hook.
"If you rent a crane from Maxim and use Maxim's operator then Maxim is responsible for qualifying their operator," said one industry expert who asked not to be identified. "But if you rent the same crane and find your own operator, now you're the employer of the crane operator and now you have to do the job of qualifying him or her."
The legal language around crane certification and training can be confusing to many construction pros, said Debbie Dickinson, CEO of Carrollton, Georgia-based Crane Industry Services. That’s why it’s important to stay on top of new regulations as well as state and city laws governing crane operation.
Dickinson breaks it down this way: “Certification is like having a driver’s license for a car, and just because you have a driver’s license doesn’t mean you are a good driver.”
Qualification and accreditation is more important, she said, because certification from a company that’s not accredited “isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”
Adding to the confusion are the many different types of cranes and the jobs they perform, said David Doherty, crane operations manager for national construction firm Cianbro. “Just because you prove you’ve met the minimum requirement of knowledge and skill doesn’t mean you can go out and operate a very complex piece of equipment in a range of complex situations.”
Cianbro, which performs work in markets across the country including industrial, manufacturing, infrastructure, and energy, owns more than 100 cranes of various types and has 50 operators in the field on any given day, Doherty said.
The company invests heavily in workforce development through the two-year-old Cianbro Institute, a professional growth and education center located at the company’s Pittsfield, Maine, headquarters. Its crane operators undergo a series of rigorous training and evaluation procedures, starting with classroom training at the institute, followed by a written NCCCO exam. Once they pass that, they move to a simulated work environment where they are subject to a range of conditions they would find in the field, such as setup, maintenance and blind lifting.
After that comes four weeks of boot camp-style training and then the NCCCO practical exam. Only when trainees complete that exam do they move onto a jobsite, where they are paired with a qualified crane operator for 500 to 1,000 hours of on-the-job training. At the end of the process, they are re-evaluated and the company decides whether they’re ready to become a standalone operator.
“It’s quite a process,” Doherty said, recalling that his training nearly 20 years ago was nowhere near as comprehensive. “The approach back then was to just do your best and you’ll be fine.”
Of course, insurance companies want to know that their construction firm clients take precautions to protect their jobsites from life-threatening incidents involving cranes or any other type of equipment. William “Hank” Dutton, senior technical specialist at insurance firm Travelers, said many of his customers hire subcontractors for their crane operations, which mitigates some of their risk. Even so, the company bears responsibility.
“We still encourage them to have an understanding of crane safety and the things that are within their control,” he said. "We expect customers to meet more than just federal, state and local rules and regulations."
Many construction firms he works with have their own programs for crane safety and training, said Dutton. “We talk to our customers about looking at the best practices and having a culture of safety and accountability surrounding the topic of cranes,” he said.
The industry source who asked not to be named said that while most big construction companies have best practices in place for their crane operations, some smaller firms have some catching up to do. "Most large employers are already in line with the OSHA regulations because they know it makes good sense," he said. "We're talking about a $3 million or $5 million or $20 million piece of equipment, so they want to make sure their employees know how to run it."
Dutton recommends a top-down approach to crane safety that involves everyone from the operator and foreman to supervisors, estimators and CEOs. He encourages all construction company employees to take crane safety classes so they can learn about the myriad issues that go into operating and maintaining the equipment.
The industry source said that while companies don't usually get discounts for having crane safety practices, they can be charged higher rates or dropped from coverage altogether for repeated infractions. He recalled one customer with a disproportionate share of crane-related incidents. It was clear that the firm's leadership was unaware of the problem because when he showed the CEO his firm's share of issues compared to other similar companies, the executive's "jaw dropped," the source said.
"He committed there and then to change the numbers and worked with us to improve safety processes. So far there have been no more accidents," he said. "We had to get the CEO's attention first; it all flows from there."
In addition, media attention, including amateur online footage of recent crane accidents, is putting the heat on construction company officials, the source said. News coverage singles out companies involved in accidents.
"Your reputation is really on the line," he said. "The media says that if you have a crane accident you must be an unsafe company."
Construction industry leaders are realizing that their companies' name could be "drug through the mud" if there is an accident involving a crane, even if it's a subcontractor's crane." Whether at fault or not, a firm's ability to attract new customers and future employees could be negatively impacted, the executive added.
No matter the burdens — whether related to time, money, regulatory, public relations or insurance — the most important reason for any crane safety program is saving lives. According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates, about 44 people are killed and 175 injured each year in U.S. crane accidents. The OSHA revisions should help decrease operator-induced crane accidents, Brent said.
“Because it makes qualification a three-step process involving training, certification and evaluation, it will undoubtedly make crane operation safer if followed correctly,” he said. “Making certifications plus evaluations required is a very powerful combination, if employers do their part to adhere to them.”
The regulations also make employer-paid retraining a requirement every five years, something crane inspector Pritchett said is crucial for decreasing risks. “Training should not be a one-time affair but an ongoing process,” he said.
Regulations like the new OSHA rules are helping boost safety in crane work, Doherty said. “Nowadays most of the individuals who operate cranes will be exposed in a controlled environment to the task they will be asked to do in the field and that’s major,” he said. “They know what to look for and know the hazards."
Improved training will avoid accidents by helping bring new workers up to speed, said crane expert Jim D. Wiethorn, principal engineer at Haag Engineering Co., who analyzed more than 700 crane accidents over 30 years and found that 94% of them are caused by some type of human involvement, either by the operator or a member of the field crew.
“When a crew is new or has not worked with the operator before, predictive analytics indicates they are 300 times more likely to have an accident than if they have an experienced crew and operator that have worked together,” he said. “The ever-changing environment along with new workers being brought in leads to this type of situation on the construction site.”
It all comes down to having a culture and mindset of safety, experts say. The crane expert who asked not to be named also recalled a tragic incident in 1999 during the construction of Miller Park Stadium in Milwaukee. Not wanting to lose a day from the schedule, construction managers kept work running even though winds were unusually high. A 500-foot-tall crane came down and killed three ironworkers.
An investigation revealed that although the effects of side winds on the crane had been calculated, it had not been considered for the load the equipment was lifting. The resulting investigation put the project 14 months behind schedule and cost millions of dollars in delays, fines and lawsuits.
"CEOS need to understand that for most jobsites," the source concluded, "a crane is the biggest and most expensive piece of equipment out there and most days things go well but on the day it doesn't it can be really bad."