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Crane Safety: Why Industry Wants a New OSHA Standard

OSHA recently announced it intends to update its 30-year-old crane standard. Operator training heads a list of changes expected in the revised rule.

It sounds like a classic "man bites dog" story: Industry representatives persuade a somewhat reluctant OSHA to update a regulation. But that appears to be precisely what happened in July, when OSHA took the first step toward revising its construction safety standards for cranes and derricks (29 CFR 1926.550).

The agency announced it would begin accepting nominations for a negotiated rulemaking committee and that it expects the committee to draft a proposed rule within 18 months of its first meeting.

Perhaps even more remarkable for a safety community often stymied by contention, stakeholders appear to agree on what they want in the revised OSHA rule.

Industry Pushes for a New Crane Rule

From computers to hydraulics, crane technology has changed a lot since 1971, while OSHA's crane rule has not. The agency's existing regulation relies heavily on a late 1960s vintage of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) B-30.5 standard for crawler cranes.

Unlike a good wine, an ANSI standard does not generally improve with age. That's why the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, ANSI's standards developing organization for B-30 standards, continually updates the standards for crane manufacturing, operational procedures, inspection requirements and operator qualifications.

In its announcement that it would update the crane rule through negotiated rulemaking, OSHA pointed to the progress made by the crane workgroup of the Advisory Committee for Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH) as evidence of the ability of stakeholders to reach agreement (see "Crane Rule Update: ACCSH Workgroup Prepares the Field" on page 36).

A mixture of genuine concern for safety and economic self-interest appear to be driving the desire of crane manufacturers, construction companies and others for an updated crane rule.

"We want people using our cranes to go home at night," explained Michael Brunet, P.E., manager of the boom group at the Manitowoc Co. With headquarters in the small Wisconsin town that gave the company its name, Manitowoc is one of the largest remaining American-owned crane manufacturers. Users of Manitowoc cranes applaud the manufacturer for its dedication to safety, and the company is deeply involved in the push for an updated OSHA standard. "We have a vested interest in seeing that cranes are operated safely, given the amount of litigation that can follow a crane accident," commented Paul Pukita, manager of structural design at Manitowoc.

John Buck, the company's corporate safety director, noted there are three components to crane safety: crane design, the operating environment and the operator's control. "As crane manufacturers, we can only control one-third of that equation," Buck said.

Construction companies also have reasons for wanting an updated OSHA standard. Douglas Sidelinger, equipment supervisor for Cianbro Corp., a Pittsfield, Maine, heavy construction contractor, pointed out that conflicts between OSHA's old rule and the more up-to-date industry consensus ANSI B-30.5 standard can pose dilemmas for construction firms. For example, OSHA does not allow crane operations within 10 feet of an electrical power line, but the ANSI standard, Sidelinger said, provides a process that ensures safe operations inside 10 feet.

"Some jobs are impossible unless you can work within 10 feet of a power line," he said. "The conflicts between ANSI and OSHA put users in the middle."

Dale Daul, director of construction risk control for The St. Paul Cos., a commercial property and casualty insurance provider with headquarters in St. Paul, Minn., put his finger on another reason many companies may welcome an updated OSHA standard. "A crane is by far the most dangerous and costly piece of equipment on job sites. If it fails, you're lucky if several people don't die in the process. Yet, normally contractors do a very poor job of managing cranes."

Consultant Brad Closson, vice president at the San Diego office of the North American Crane Bureau, explained that losses stemming from a crane failure do not stop with the incident itself. "Personal experience tells me that after a crane incident, productivity drops dramatically," said Closson, who spends much of his time doing crane accident investigations. "Everyone is focused on the horror of what has just occurred."

In the aftermath of a major crane failure, incident rates go up because instead of paying attention to their safety, workers are preoccupied. Supervisors and managers are besieged with these smaller problems as well as the consequences of the disaster, which may include lawsuits, bad press, higher insurance premiums or the loss of insurance altogether.

"This is why a crane incident is the last kind of problem you want to have, and why, after a crane incident, most companies have a stand-down period to address all the issues at once," Closson said.

Safety or Seat of the Pants?

Stricter training requirements and improved understanding of how cranes work, by operators as well as everyone else up and down the crane management food chain, head most people's list of what needs to change in the new OSHA standard.

"Crane operators used to operate by the seat of their pants. You could feel the crane start to tip and then compensate," Sidelinger said. "If you overload them now, they'll break, the load will come down, and you can have a major catastrophe on your hands."

From a safety perspective, perhaps the most fundamental change in crane technology over the past three decades has been the shift from mechanical cranes with brakes and friction the operator could "feel" to hydraulic cranes.

The existing OSHA standard does not specifically address hydraulic cranes because they were rare in the late 1960s. The prevalence of hydraulic cranes today is one reason operators no longer can rely on past experience and must be trained to understand the capability of the crane they are using. An OSHA official pointed out that the inspection of a hydraulic crane differs from that of the older machines, so this is another area the agency expects the new rule will take up.

OSHA also must tackle the management of cranes, according to Dave Ritchie, a risk control technical specialist for The St. Paul Cos. and a member of the ACCSH work group.

"Typically, the first person who makes a decision about cranes is the estimator, and then the superintendent and project manager," he said. "Many times, they don't have sufficient crane knowledge to make the right decisions."

Closson said that whenever there is a crane on site, "everyone involved should be afraid because it takes so many people executing correctly for it to work."

The two most common crane management problems, according to Ritchie, are not setting up the crane properly and supervisor intimidation of operators. "Some dinosaur supervisors are intimidating operators to do things they know are wrong."

For example, to prevent the machine from tipping, all mobile cranes have load charts. According to Ritchie and other experts, however, to get the job done quicker and cheaper, many supervisors ask operators to overload the crane.

According to Brunet, earlier standards granted operators the right to refuse a lift they judged unsafe, but if an operator refuses to do a job today, the supervisor will find someone else to do it. "That's one of the things we're trying to get back into the standard - the right to refusal," said Brunet, who is a member of the ACCSH work group.

The Difference Between Bartenders and Crane Operators

The growth in the number and complexity of attachments is a second key development in the evolution of crane design over the past 30 years, according to Paul Pukita, manager of structural design at Manitowoc Co. While customers demand lighter cranes with greater reach and lifting capacity, the new technology also requires more of operators and managers if these cranes are to be used safely.

Pukita cited luffing jibs as an example of how new designs have outgrown regulations. "A jib used to be a relatively short attachment with a nominal capacity of 20 tons." Modern luffing jibs have a separate hoist that moves the jib up and down, greatly expanding its reach and capacity but adding to potential safety concerns. "Now you can vary the boom angle and the jib angle, so operation is much more complex for operators," he said.

While the physical demands of crane operation have become easier, the mental requirements have grown, experts said. "Now cranes operate with a joy stick, like video games," commented Joe Collins, crane supervisor at Zachry Construction Corp., a heavy industrial contractor based in San Antonio, Texas. "Today's cranes have on-board computers, so that requires an additional amount of training as opposed to relying on the skill and judgment of the operator."

Cranes are so sophisticated that some experts believe OSHA should require the certification of all operators by the only accredited certification training program, the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators (CCO). Although the current crane rule does not require operator certification, CCO's program is the only one recognized by OSHA as meeting operator competency requirements.

"CCO's position is that operator qualifications are not adequately addressed in the current OSHA rule," said Graham Brent, COO executive director. "Operator qualifications are addressed better in (ANSI standard) B-30.5."

With the exception of a few states and municipalities, no special license or certification is required of crane operators. It is not clear how operator training and certification will be dealt with in the new OSHA standard, but there appears to be consensus that the failure to spell out operator qualifications is an unacceptable gap in the current rule.

"I find it interesting," Collins said, "that my barber and bartender need licenses, but my crane operator does not."


Crane Rule Update: ACCSH Workgroup Prepares the Field

When OSHA's negotiated rulemaking committee begins to meet - probably in early 2003 - it may find that a subcommittee of OSHA's Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH) has completed much of the groundwork for revising the crane and derrick standard.

"We're on an accelerated schedule.We'll come out with a document by the end of the year so the negotiated rulemaking committee will be able to pick it up and run with it," said Michael Brunet, P.E., a member of the ACCSH subcommittee, or workgroup. Brunet is manager of the boom group at Manitowoc Co., a Wisconsin crane manufacturer.

For the past two years, Brunet, along with other representatives from industry, labor, the construction industry and safety organizations, have worked to develop a list of changes they would like to see in OSHA's crane rule (29 CFR 1926.550).

Brunet said some of the issues he wants see on the workgroup's final report include:

  • Operator certification,
  • The operator's right of refusal to do a lift,
  • How close to power lines cranes may operate, and
  • Crane inspection recordkeeping.

Other ACCSH subcommittee members confirmed that operator qualifications need to be addressed in any new OSHA crane standard, though it is not clear whether there is sufficient support for a national licensing or accredited certification requirement.

"One of the biggest issues on the ACCSH working group is whether the revised standard should be a one-stop standard," Brunet said. "Right now, it can be hard for small contractors, who have to deal with dozens of different standards referred to in the OSHA rule."

One-stop shopping and a user-friendly rule are important to another member of the workgroup, Emmett Russell, director of safety and health for the International Union of Operating Engineers. Pointing to the success of an earlier negotiated rulemaking committee - the steel erection standard - Russell appeared as eager to improve the format of the crane rule as its contents.

"Any worker or employer can go to the steel rule and have a good understanding of what is expected of him or her," Russell said. "The value of negotiated rulemaking is that because stakeholders wrote it, all stakeholders can understand it."

But according to another member of the working group, Zachry Construction Corp. crane supervisor Joe Collins, "We were hopelessly shot down [by OSHA] on one-stop shopping, because the standard would be too large."

ACCSH has to approve the final document produced by the workgroup. Even if this happens, the negotiated rulemaking committee will not be bound to follow it. Nevertheless, in the relatively small world of crane safety, the workgroup's final product should be a good gauge of where the rulemaking committee is headed.

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