Are you ready to rescue?

8 September 2011

If a tower crane operator is taken ill or injured in his cab, his life may depend on a speedy rescue. Generally, it will be up to the contractor to ensure a rescue can be conducted safely. Cristina Brooks reports

When sparks and flashes lit up the cab of a tower crane in Canberra, Australia, in July, contractors had to work with emergency services to get the driver out of danger. In this case the driver, uninjured by the severed cable, was able to walk himself to safety, but if an operator suffers a heart attack or becomes incapacitated it may be impossible to get them down through the tower.

An incapacitated operator must be hoisted over the side in an operation that’s both fast and safe. Around the world, the patchy availability of public rescue services, plus differences in tower crane type and configuration, make it the contractor’s responsibility to provide the equipment to save the operator’s life.

“Medical emergencies in the cab, particularly those that might immobilise or render the operator unconscious, will require removal of the operator using a lifting device,” says Stuart Linnitt, North European director at Capital Safety, a fall protection product maker.

Because having specific rescue devices and trained teams is necessary, and public rescue services don’t always have them, caring contractors must take responsibility for ensuring the necessary kit and staff is on hand to drastically reduce the time it takes to save the dying operator.

A rescuer climbing up the ladder to the victim carries a tower crane rescue pack. It contains fall arrest recovery blocks, rope clamps, anchor slings, pulleys, low-stretch rope, and rope protectors, all of which may be used in different ways.

Where it gets tricky is choosing the correct rescue equipment and where to anchor it. Depending on the cab type, a descender, a hoist, or a davit may be used to lower the victim.

If the main door is in the bottom of the cab, as in many older Liebherr cabs, the victim must be hoisted through a top hatch using a rigging system anchored to the roof. Andy Speier, a partner in American Spec Rescue International, and a special operations battalion chief for a fire district in Olympia, Washington, explains.

“The older tower cranes are quite a challenge. In many of the cabs, operators sat on the exit, so if they became unconscious, the only way to reach them would be through an escape hatch on the roof,” says Speier.

Tower cranes tied into buildings can rise hundreds of metres, so rescuers need to be completely self-assured, if not seasoned, rope climbers. “It is a challenge to access the roof of the cab. If it’s 30ft off the ground, you have plenty of volunteers, but when its 200ft off the ground, you don’t.” says Speier.

Accessing tower cranes with doors in the rear or side of the cabin is easier. Speier says: “A rear door behind the operator goes to a small deck. You can walk inside, package the operator, and then rig up a system to lower him to safety. That’s much easier than top entry.”

Depending on the condition of the patient, rescuers use different slings to lower them. Harnesses can be full-body or an over-the-head type intended for use with a tower crane cabin that has a roof hatch. Harnesses can cut off circulation and lead to suspension trauma if worn for too long, so rescuers also use stretchers or manriding platforms.

Additional considerations when choosing the rescue equipment include the height of the tower crane, which affects how much rope is needed in the bag, and points of contact the rope will have with sharp edges, affecting rope protection fittings. “The basic rescue kit can be very generic. The biggest variation you have is allowance for the height of the tower crane,” says Paul Harrison, managing director of Taskmasters, a UK-based training company with its own Safe Return brand rescue kit.

International safety companies such as Sperian provide training and equipment in many parts of the world. “We have sales offices and training centres in France and Germany, US and Australia, and we have manufacturing plants in different regions,” says Christophe Mathy, vice president of communications at Sperian.

UK-headquartered Capital Safety, which owns the brand Uniline, also runs an international training programme, with fall protection brands DBI-Sala, Protecta and its training company Tag. With 28 locations worldwide, it trains in the US, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Germany and Spain, but it sells kits to many more countries. It takes a risk-assessment focused approach, forming an evaluation and then training an appointed person from the contractor’s company to perform tower crane rescues on different sites.

“As crane designs, practices, workers and workplaces vary, decisions relating to the how, what, when and who, should really emanate from a detailed risk assessment or a least be adjusted to suit local conditions,” says Linnitt.

Other rescue kit manufacturers agree with this locally-focused strategy. “Various height safety manufacturers have developed some very good equipment but are usually not sure of what market it can be fully utilised in,” says Harrison.

In the UK regulations require construction companies to take safety measures, such as appointing rescue teams for most tower crane sites, notifying emergency services of tower locations and providing rescue kits, but don’t specify rescue methods. A thriving industry exists for supplying and training on-site teams. Nonetheless, many companies fail to train their staff to rescue the victim from the cab in the belief that the fire and rescue teams will always be able to make the climb. Emergency fire and rescue teams aren’t necessarily willing to climb tower cranes. arrison says: “There’s still a big debate about who needs to cover the rescue. We often train with emergency services so are aware of their levels of competencies, and their stance on potential cover in the commercial environment. Typically they get phone calls all the time asking them how they’re going to cover a rescue. Where they quite rightly revert back to the construction company, ‘How are you going to cover the potential rescue?”

Harrison says: “You might ask them to come to the site, but the crews might not be comfortable with climbing the tower crane.”

Fire and rescue services can retort that because of the UK and EC’s work at height regulations, companies in the UK have a duty of care to their operators, which obliges them to provide the rescue team.

“What contractors don’t always realize is that they have a legal duty of care for anyone on the site,” says Harrison. “What if a member of the emergency services were injured on site? Imagine if a paramedic was climbing a tower crane, and got injured, the construction company would have to answer the question ‘Why didn’t you hand over services in a safe area?” For this reason, Taskmasters trains rescue teams to provide first aid.

UK regulations don’t specify minimum training levels for rescue teams so contractors vary the plans to suit themselves, but Harrison recommends a minimum three-month interval between each ground-based catch up session.

“In regards to stance of the HSE, it’s not up to them to tell you whether you’re using the correct procedure, it’s up to you to evaluate the potential risks and then carry out the correct assessment of what would cover your employees or contractors in working in a safe environment. The equipment is only as good as the user,” says Harrison.

“Some tower crane hire companies will hire a rescue piece without any form of competency training,” he says.

Relying on fire and rescue services is more common in continental Europe, where contractors have similar legal obligations, says Harrison, who has organised training operations for Taskmasters in the UK, Spain and Italy.

In the US, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that contractors have an emergency provision, but on-site rescue teams are generally not trained, so companies by and large depend on local fire and rescue services. Speier, who served on a fire and rescue team in Washington, says, “Most often the tower crane companies will rely on the local fire or emergency medical services responders to respond and mitigate an incident involving their tower cranes.

“Occasionally public rope rescue teams will collaborate with contractors. A contractor will hire an outside training specialist to conduct specific rescue training for the local responders to ensure that they are properly equipped and trained to perform the task,” says Speier.

Fire departments receive general rope rescue training rather than specific tower crane rescue training. Speier says: “In the discipline of high angle rescue obviously there are water tanks, water towers, buildings that are under construction that teams can use for practice. Quite often teams don’t have an opportunity or take the time to train on some of the site specific training hazards. In those situations they have to be resourceful.”

Despite the availability of trained fire and rescue teams in the US, and in Europe, they can’t always provide a timely rescue service to remote or small cities scattered throughout the country.

“When the cranes are being used in remote locations where there are no municipal responders, sometimes companies will have their own personnel trained and form an industrial rescue brigade as they realise that there is no one that is going to respond and perform the service for them,” Speier says.

In other places in the world, regulations and public services can be non-existent. Linnit says: “In the Middle East, we have dealt with construction companies, emergency services, and maintenance workers. It varies massively. In some countries where you wouldn’t think they have training they do. It depends on how strict the main contractor is.”

Fortunately for operators in remote places, accessibility is becoming more integrated with crane design. anufacturers importing to Europe must comply with a European standard established in 2010, EN14439, requiring railings, increasing the minimum size of toe guards and adding rest platforms in the tower crane segments.

Safety regulations for cab rescues are recent in the history of the tower crane, and have only just begun to develop in the last decade. Stefan Olsson of Artic Crane, says: “There was lots of talk about how to rescue drivers in 2008-2009. You had some accidents in London and then everybody started to talk about it.”

Forward-looking manufacturers have preempted future regulations. Swedish Artic Crane has made a 1.3m-wide cab that with a ledge and a rescue davit as standard on its Raptor 84 articulating jib tower crane. Olsson says: “If you look at the size of the cab that’s quite important if you have quite a heavy driver in the seat having a heart attack.”

Terex Comedil is one of several brands offering a more accessible cab with a full door on the back. Additionally, a lifting device such as the The Scanclimber by HiReach, may be fixed to various tower cranes using custom brackets. Such a lift was used to improve access on a site following the lobby of a construction worker’s union in Victoria, Australia, by the CFMEU (Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union), last year.

CFMEU’s vice President, Noel Washington, said: “Firstly there’s the issue of the operator having to climb up and down three times a day and the potential for falls and injuries, particularly in winter. And what if you’ve got to recover an injured operator? The only way to guarantee their safety is with something like this.”

Such high-tech rescue equipment, and ongoing training, comes at a cost. However, caring contractors will foot the bill for two reasons, says Linnitt. “One’s a genuine concern about the wellbeing of their people. The other is compliance.”

A top entry hatch A top entry hatch
A view of the cab through the top entry hatch A view of the cab through the top entry hatch
A dummy is lowered during a rescue training session A dummy is lowered during a rescue training session
Taskmasters uses a dummy in a stretcher to train teams. Taskmasters uses a dummy in a stretcher to train teams.
Taskmasters training clients indoors Taskmasters training clients indoors