Borders, deadlines threaten US industry

17 April 2017

As the worldwide construction-equipment event cycle evolves, it has become harder and harder for any event other than bauma in Munich to really claim to represent the global industry. ConExpo in Las Vegas certainly makes a good showing, but with launches in a hard market recently focused on the German show a year before, it is hard for it to claim to be anything other than the biggest show in the Americas, not a transatlantic contender for the global crown.

Beyond the long-term pressures on all trade shows, with manufacturers increasingly preferring to bring potential customers directly to their factories, ConExpo 2017 also presented an example of how the new US administration has shot the country’s manufacturers in the foot with its xenophobic and isolationist border policies. Rather than 'making America great again', they look likely to close US companies off from potential customers around the world.

At the show, manufacturers with an interest in reaching customers in the oil-rich Middle East pointed out a lack of visitors from many of these countries. While this is purely anecdotal, it definitely matches my observations of the show attendees.

Similarly anecdotal, and shocking in its implications, was the treatment of Wagenborg managing director Ton Klijn. As the top man at one of Europe’s leading crane and transport companies, and secretary of ESTA, the umbrella body for European crane and special-transport trade associations, one would expect Klijn to have an easy time getting into the US.

Like many of us, Klijn spotted the addition of a new question in the visa waiver form filled in by visitors from Europe, asking if the applicant had visited recently any of Trump’s seven supposedly terrorist-linked Muslimmajority countries. As he had visited Iraq on behalf of a major global oil company, Klijn could only tick ‘yes’. His visa waiver was declined, leaving him needing to complete a full visa request in the days running up to the show – an impossible deadline in the time remaining.

The oil and gas sector is one of the biggest sources of demand for construction equipment. At its highest levels, it employs expats from around the world, including very many from the UK and Netherlands. It is hard to see how the US can claim a leadership role in this sector if it is prepared, at the stroke of a presidential pen, to block senior and expert staff from easily entering the country.

The ease with which the Trump administration blocked visitors to ConExpo can be contrasted with its apparent loathing of other regulations. The upshot of this, though, as we hear from Graham Brent at the start of our news pages, may not be the blocking of new regulations but the coming into effect of regulations that are widely recognised as bad.

In 2014, US OSHA delayed implementations of elements of its cranes and derricks rule, demanding certification of all crane operators working in the country. At the time, the industry had pointed out that the initial interpretation of the rule had demanded certification in a way no one had envisioned.

OSHA has since presented a new version of the rule, and promised that an improved version is written and ready. But the rule has yet to see the light of day. Even if it were to be announced tomorrow, in a form everyone can support, it would be virtually impossible to implement before the delayed implementation comes into effect. When that happens, it is unclear whether any of the 135,000 operators certified under the industry's interpretation of what the rule was meant to say will be allowed to go to work. The US construction industry faces the very real possibility of complete shutdown as a result.

The Trump administration came to power on the back of promises of limited regulation and a focus on local business. That's all good, but they also need to do the basic job of governing.

Will North, editor