ECOL pilot takes off

18 September 2018


In Europe, progress towards a single agreed certification or licence for crane operators has taken time—but it is approaching its goal at last. Julian Champkin talked to Ton Klijn, director of ESTA, who explained the scheme and its background.

Ton Klijn says, “It is ridiculous. All over the world people use the same kinds of cranes, made by the same four or five major manufacturers; but training on how to use those cranes is different in every country.

We have spent five years trying to make this less ridiculous.” “We are not there yet”, he says; “But we are getting there.” He compares the process to building up momentum in a flywheel: a lot of effort at first until the thing starts spinning at a useful speed.

“We hope by the beginning of 2019 the scheme will be up and running.”

“The initial idea for harmonisation of crane certification came in 2013. FEM, the association to which major crane manufacturers belong, told us that their members were noticing something worrying: that when they sold a new crane the operators coming to collect it were increasingly lacking knowledge of cranes.

“Yet these were presumably the most skilled and experienced crane operators that the purchasing companies possessed. You would not send a raw recruit to collect a brandnew and expensive new purchase.

“Under European Community law a manufacturer is required to establish on hand-over that his customer knows how to operate a piece of machinery.

For this reason both Liebherr and Terex started training schools, to satisfy themselves that their clients were able safely to use their cranes. But as they pointed out to us, this was not really their job, and we at ESTA should do it.”

Assessing the problem

“So ESTA investigated. We found that different European countries have different requirements for crane operator training, ranging from strict to minimal. Greece has no requirement at all.

“In most countries, an operator licence is not a legal requirement but is required under labour law.

An employer is required to satisfy himself that an employee is competent, but is free to determine that in any way he wishes.

“But the problem is wider than that. An operator of, say, an all-terrain crane requires two licences: a road licence, to drive it on public roads (in the UK that would be an HGV licence or similar); and a licence to operate the crane.

“A road licence is recognised all over Europe; a crane licence is recognised only in the country that issued it. So you have the bizarre situation that, say, an Italian crane operator can drive his crane from Sicily to northern Norway, but can only operate it where he was trained, in Italy.

“ESTA decided two things. Firstly, we wanted to improve the standard of training as a whole. Crane technology has improved tremendously over the past twenty years; crane training has hardly advanced at all. Secondly, we wanted a certification that would be recognised all over Europe.

“When I worked for Wagenborg we had crane operations in four different countries, so I had to operate with four different licences. In those days, in Holland operators could only get their licence in Dutch—and few Germans speak Dutch. So any German operators needed lessons in the Dutch language before they could take the exam and work in Holland.

“There were many ridiculous situations like that, and we needed to fix them.” Klijn has been working on the fix ever since.

Developing ECOL

“That was back in 2013. We are now five years on, and beginning to get close to a result. So as you can see, it was not done quickly.

“It has been a long haul, with frequently one step backwards for every two steps forward. Holland, Belgium, Germany and the UK were the first to come on board. Since then more have joined but there are 28 European countries in all: ‘Europe’ in this context includes Switzerland and Turkey as well as EU members.”

The first move was to establish a working group. “ESTA would devise the system, but would not manage it once it was going. We set up ECOL—the European Crane Operators Licence scheme—as the organisation to run it. ECOL is independent from ESTA. Three representatives sit on its board: one from ESTA (currently it is myself); one from crane manufacturers; and one from labour unions.

“As things stand at present, we have developed all the documentation. I was surprised how much it took. Occupational requirements and generic training requirements have been worked out; so everything is ready. We have had 24 meetings of the group to work out a European standard. Our approach all the way through has been pragmatic: we accepted what we thought would work over what was most rigorously logical or doctrinaire.

“For example: A crane operator should be medically fit to operate his crane. But what is ‘medically fit’? None of us are doctors; and every European country has its own different requirements and definitions of being ‘medically fit’ as an operator.

“But a licence to drive a heavy goods vehicle also requires medical fitness, no matter which country issued it. The medical requirements might vary country to country, but they are there. So we decided that a licence to drive a heavy good vehicle was good enough evidence of medical fitness to operate a crane. Certainly we are aware that an all-terrain crane is very different from a heavy goods vehicle. The end result may not be to every country’s standards, but it works.

“There were dozens of issues like this, and we went for a pragmatic approach to all of them. We can live with different countries’ differing definitions just so long as the system that we end up with will work.

“We could get away with that because we avoided trying to get governments on board. This is an approach by the industry, for the industry, and it will work based on mutual recognition between the various licence issuing authorities. No legislation has been passed for it, or will be passed for it. We have taken five years, which was long enough; but trying to get 28 different governments to agree to a common legal standard would have taken forever. “

“The scheme works as follows. There are two different parts to it: there is training of operators, and there is testing of operators, and these have to be kept separate. For a new operator, 240 hours of training is required. Half of that is theoretical, half is practical, though the proportions can be varied according to individual need. At the end of the training, an exam is taken.

“We defined the standards that need to be reached to pass the exam; but as well as that we defined the standards that the training school must reach: in other words, how that training is to be done. There is a reason for this. We talked to Australian colleagues, who have a training and exam system in place.

They found people were skipping the training but just taking the exam, failing it, taking it again and so on, until by fluke or luck they passed, perhaps on the 5th or 6th attempt.

The cost of the exam was so much less than the cost of the training that this worked out cheaper for the operator. But it was obviously unsatisfactory for the industry.

“In Italy you can get an operator’s licence, from scratch, after 24 hours training. We require 240 hours. That is a large step and a large requirement. But it is one that the industry thinks is necessary.

“But, again pragmatically, we recognise existing skill and experience. We do not expect an operator who has been working with cranes for twenty years to spend 240 hours learning what he already knows. We are recognising the value of years of experience to give a reduction in the training required.

There will be a sliding scale. Four years’ experience will give you a reduction in the hours of training you need. With 20 years of experience you will need no training hours at all. We assume that by then you know what you are doing.

“Testing is allowed in your native language or in English; and those who fail the exam are allowed to re-sit it, although only during a limited period.

“We have registered our training scheme with the EQF, the European Qualifications Framework, which is the Europe-wide body that compares and grades such things. It classifies training programmes according to rigour, into eight levels.

A Level 1 outcome gives the general knowledge to carry out a simple task under direct supervision; Level 8 gives “advanced knowledge at the forefront of research”. We expect ours to be a level 3 – which EQF define as giving ‘a range of cognitive and practical skills required to accomplish tasks and solve problems by selecting and applying basic methods, tools, materials and information’ and allowing the qualifier to ‘take responsibility for completion of tasks… and to adapt behaviour to circumstances in solving problems.’

“Registering with EQF means that all European countries will have to recognise the qualification. “ So once an operator has got himself an ECOL licence, he can work all over Europe. “And a piece of good news: in Canada as well” says Klijn. “Canada has announced that it will recognise the certification.”

Logging experience

However, once you have gained your ECOL licence you are not finished. “You register into the ECOL system and log the crane-hours you do, onto an app.” For example, it may be ‘40 hours this week on a Terex HC 230.’ The record is validated by your employer. If you move to another company the new employer can ask to see the record. If permitted (it is personal data, so the operator owns it) he can see exactly how much experience, and how recent experience, the new employee actually has. “This will prevent what used to happen to me at Wagenborg, where job applicants would claim to have worked on much larger cranes than was actually the case.”

Similarly, work experience has to be recent. If you do no crane work at all for five years, the ECOL licence will lapse.

Klijn stresses that ECOL only sets the standards and certifies the training. It does not carry out the training, nor carry out the exams. Furthermore, the training and the exam must be carried out by different entities – the trainer cannot perform the examination, since there would be a clear conflict of interest there: it would be to his advantage to pass as many candidates as he could. “A lot of countries do not have that separation” he says.

“In Germany for example that was a problem that took luck and persistence to sort out.”

Certification will cost money of course. “Generally we expect it to be the operator or his employer who will bear the costs. We have no influence over how much the training establishments and the testing establishments will charge, but we expect that training and exam fees together will amount to some €4,000-5,000.”

He expects the scheme to be up and running by the beginning of 2019. “The first pilot run is finished. The training took place in the Mammoet Academy in Holland. The first four ECOL licenced operators are now alive and kicking.”

The second pilot, in Denmark, is imminent; others, in Holland and at Fagioli’s training establishment in Italy, are planned for the autumn.

“We are looking for support from industry: the large contractors and the petroleum industry should support it” he says. “I gave a presentation last year at a conference of the wind generating industry, and the big players there want to adopt the ECOL standard. That is not for nothing, because a lot of crane accidents happen in wind-farms. They carry the risk, so they want to reduce it, and reducing the risks of injury and deaths is what has driven us.”

The work is not finished yet. “There are still two meetings of the working group to go before the ECOL foundation will be up and running. The next is in Denmark in November. It has often been two steps forward and one step back— but we are getting there.”

The ECOL exam tests operators’ ability to oversee all steps in the lifting process, including attaching the load.
An operator works with a slinger/signaller during the ECOL exam pilot at Mammoet. Further pilots will take place in Denmark, Italy, and The Netherlands in 2018.