Higher learning

12 February 2021


Training and certification for crane operators have until recently been national or state concerns. Now they are going continent-wide and crossing borders. Julian Champkin reports.

Europe and the United States have both struggled to impose unified training and certification schemes for crane operators. Both have recently made steps towards a simplified system that will apply across state and national boundaries. Those systems are now in place. Even so, in both continents progress has been painfully slow and the legalities can still be a minefield.

Ton Klijn is the director of ESTA, the body trying to bring some degree of coherence to the licencing of crane operators in the EU. “Every country has its own rules and regulations,” he says. “It made for a situation that can be daft. A mobile crane operator could legally drive his crane from Aberdeen to Sicily but could only operate it in his own country.

“A German crane-hire company near the Dutch border could not use German-certified operators for jobs in Holland. A Dutch crane operator certified in his own country but wanting to work across the border had to take another exam, probably in German, which he might not be fluent in. Training and certification vary hugely within Europe. At one end you have Norway, where crane operators in the petrochemical industry need three months internal training plus two years apprenticeship; at the other extreme, in Italy you can become an operator in 24 hours and in Greece you can become a certified crane operator with no training at all: all you have to do is get another certified operator to write a letter saying that you are capable of it.

“All the other countries are somewhere in the middle. So ESTA decided to try to get a European crane operators licence in place that would be accepted throughout the EU.”

The result is the European Crane Operators Licence, or ECOL. The first batch of them was awarded last year.

“We said ‘We at ESTA are not going to do the training for the licence ourselves, and we are not going to do the examination for it ourselves’,” says Klijn, “but what we are going to do is set the standard as to what an operator should know and do when he goes to the examination. We have set standards for teaching—the length of courses, and the contents, and the number of students per instructor—and we set the standard for the exam as well. We say how the exam should be performed, and that it should be judged by independent people, not by those who have trained the student.”

The gestation of the unified scheme was long and difficult. Klijn and his colleagues began work back in 2015 and frequently had to extricate themselves from the morass of EU bureaucracy and paperwork. “The scheme started working properly in mid-2019, when the pilot training finished and we started doing real training. Now we have 35 teachers and examiners in the system, and three certified training institutes,” he says.

Those institutes are run by large crane manufacturers and users, reflecting the benefits that such companies expect from a unified certification scheme: “When a new crane operator comes on-site at a large international multi-million euro project, the project owner wants a quick and sure way to be certain that he is competent,” says Klaus Meissner, manufacturers’ representative on the ECOL board.

“The training centres we have so far are run by Mammoet in the Netherlands, by EUC in Denmark and by Liebherr in Germany. Sarens is also qualified to teach, and we are talking to Tadano and Manitowoc as well. So we are moving forward, though far too slowly.”

ECOL requires from its courses a minimum of 240 hours of training, generally split 50-50 between theory and practice.

“We allow the institute to make a decision to shift up to 40 hours from one to the other for individual students who need that change, based on a midterm assessment.

ECOL supervises 5% of all training and examinations given; so an ECOL inspector can knock on the institute door and must be shown what is going on,” says Meissner.

Exams can be done in English, Dutch, Danish, and, from this year, German.

“A standard ECOL certificate is valid for five years. After that you do not have to take another exam; instead you have to show us that you have fulfilled your retraining requirements, of at least two days of full retraining during the five years. The purpose is to show that you are up to date with new technical developments and regulations and also to demonstrate your continued experience – that you have not spent three of the five years away from the industry. We have developed an ‘experience record system’ in which you enter what you have done: say 14 hours on a Liebherr this week, 29 on a Demag the next. It is like an airline pilot’s logbook; and when you arrive on a new site you simply show it, on your smartphone, to your new employer and he will know he can have confidence in your experience.”

The ECOL certificate is not yet a legal requirement for crane operators in Europe, who can still operate within their own national certification systems if they do not need to work internationally.

However it may be that big employers or projects—and perhaps insurers—may in the future require ECOL certificates for the reassurance that it gives them, and this may turn out to be one of the drivers towards its more rapid take-up.

Liebherr operates one of the ECOL certified training centres, at its factory at Ehingen in southern Germany. It has other training centres in Germany and Austria and around the world. Christoph Behmueller is their training spokesman. “The ECOL certificate and exam is more stringent than that of any of the individual countries.” he says. “It also may demand more numeracy, which a skilled individual with 20 years practical experience of operating cranes might have difficulty with.” Such individuals, he suggests, might prefer to stay with the German standard and not work in other countries.

“Modern cranes in one sense are easier to operate that ever before,” he adds. “Automation and digital systems show safe lifting areas and sound warnings, video cameras on the boom give views of the hook, and so on. But these technological changes make the crane a complex machine, and need to be known and used by the operator; and when for any reason they are not operating, he should still know how to use and how to stop the crane.” He compares it to a self-driving car: “The person behind the wheel should be able to steer it whether there is automated technology or not.”

Philip Grootenboer is Mammoet’s manager for Europe Training and Development, responsible with Anette Hack- Vermeij for the company’s training academy in the Netherlands (Mammoet also trains in the US).

They echo the point about the standard of the ECOL certification: “ECOL training is equivalent to or more extensive than the legal standard of participating countries. Mammoet Academy in the Netherlands offers ECOL training, and we also offer courses to comply with requirements of individual countries. For the Netherlands and Belgium, we offer both ECOL and mobile crane TCVT, which is a legal standard in those countries. If an operator is likely to work in other EU countries we recommend the ECOL training.

“For the UK we deliver the CPCS crane operator training, which is an industry standard. We also offer the PTC-140/200 DS Crane Operator course, which is specific for Mammoet’s ring cranes. This is not a legal requirement, nor an industry standard, but rather our own standard. For those operating crawler cranes, we have specific training which takes place on the job, and for which you need to have a mobile crane certificate as an admission requirement.”

Some idea of the differing standards and content can be gleaned from the differing length of courses that Mammoet offers.

The ECOL training course takes six weeks. TCVT training for the Netherlands takes five weeks.

CPCS for the UK and mobile crane training for the MEA region takes two weeks, as does the PTC training for Mammoet’s own giant ring cranes, but of course this latter presupposes an operator already skilled and qualified for smaller crane types.

“The difference in duration is because of the scope of the training,” says Grootenboer. “All training will involve operating a crane. TCVT additionally includes hydraulics, electrics, maintenance and all types of rigging gear. ECOL has slightly more technical content still, plus a language test. It is possible under certain circumstances, for a knowledgeable and experienced employee to follow a shortened training. This depends on the knowledge and experience of the employee who will be trained.”

The UK

The UK left the EU on 1st January 2021. Here the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), a registered charity, carries out certification and training. Christopher Blake is Program Manager for the Plant Curriculum at CITB’s National Construction College, the NCC. “First, the obvious: why train?” he says. “Inadequate employee training is a contributory cause of crane accidents.”

There is also the small matter of legal obligations and responsibility.

“In the UK the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 is the relevant legislation, with further requirements from The Provision and Use of Work Equipment regulations. Regulation 9 of this states that every employer shall ensure that all persons who use work equipment have received ‘adequate training’.” Which leaves, of course, the questions of what constitutes ‘adequate training’ and how does an employer ensure it?

There are currently two Plant operator Card Schemes used by the industry, the National Plant Operators Registration Scheme (NPORS) and Construction Plant Competence Scheme (CPCS). CITB offers the CPCS card certification to those it has trained. A red CPCS card is awarded to a newly trained operator who still requires on-the-job supervision; within two years of experience he will need to achieve a level 2 National Vocational Qualification (NVQ). Once the NVQ has been achieved and the individual has renewed their Health and Safety touch screen test they can apply for a blue CPCS card, which identifies the delegate as being a competent operator.

So how does the aspiring UK crane operator acquire CPCS training? “CITB offers training via the National Construction Colleges (NCC) with Crane Operator training being delivered at Bircham Newton in Norfolk, where we offer training for crane hire companies, apprentices and short duration commercial courses,” says Blake.

Courses offered include tower, crawler and mobile crane certificates, and also the ‘appointed persons’ course for those with overall responsibility for the lifting operation, compiling the lift plan, choosing the crane etc, and the ‘lift supervisor’ course. A CITB accredited ‘Management of Lifting Operations’ course can be tailored to the customers’ requirements and can be delivered remotely through Microsoft Teams or similar.

“We have an extensive range of plant and cranes which are regularly updated to ensure that learners are taught on the most up to date and relevant equipment currently being used by the industry,” he says. “We have Virtual Reality simulators as well.

Classes are very small, with four learners per class. Courses are generally eight days of training, of which 10-15% is theory and 85%-90% practical. The theory assessment is verbal, not written, and takes place on day 8, with the ninth day devoted to the practical assessment. In a typical year around 38 students pass through the college.”

The US

“The United States has been grappling with the problem of nation-wide certification for almost a generation now.” So says Graham Brent, CEO of the NCCCO Foundation. The rules are at last in place: but that is not the end of the story. He summarises the current situation:

“We worked with OSHA and with many others to come up with rules that are acceptable to all. We now have them. They give a three-step process. First a potential crane operator needs training. Then he needs certification, as evidence of that training; then comes evaluation by his employers, who need to know that he is competent for the particular machine configuration he is running.

“OSHA’s final rule was published in 2018. The next step, which is where the rubber hits the road, is how they are enforced. That is —or rather will be—set out in an OSHA document called a Compliance Directive; and that is what we are now waiting for OSHA to produce. It is over a year overdue, but that is not OSHA’s fault because halfway through the process the White House imposed new hoops that all new federal directives have to jump through. When it comes, the Compliance Directive will tell OSHA inspectors on the ground how to apply the new rules. It will have whole paragraphs explaining what a single sentence in the rules actually means to the employers of a real crane operator on a real crane on a real jobsite.

“So, just to start, the rule says a crane operator must be certified for the type of crane he is operating. But cranes come in any number of types: what if there is no accredited certification exam for that particular type of crane?

OSHA has an answer: it says in that case, the operator must be certified for the type that is ‘most similar’ to the crane that he is actually using. So then comes the next question: who decides what type is ‘most similar’?

“It is a practical, real-life question: for example, just this week we had an enquiry from a contractor in Honolulu who is building an extensive transit system. He is using something called a precast launcher to position bridge sections: it drives along the sections that are already in place, carrying the next section, and pushes it out to the next support and sets it down. Is this a crane at all? If so, what certification should his operator have?

“He asked us at the NCCCO Foundation through our inquiry system, and we determined that the machine most closely resembles operationally an overhead gantry crane. That relieved the project owner of a problem: he wanted to obey the rules, and he didn’t know how.

We at the Foundation have set up a body called the Crane Type Advisory Group (CTAG) comprised of veteran crane experts from all sectors of the industry to answer such questions about crane types; but other questions will arise.

Certification of crane operators is now a federal regulation, so it applies nationwide. That seems clear – but it is not that simple. Several states and cities have their own licensing requirements which may, or may not, meet OSHA’s certification requirements. In those cases, an operator might be required to have both a license and a certification. Others (Pennsylvania and West Virginia for example) use certification as a basis for their state license, so both would be required there. And so-called “state plan” states which operate their own OSHAs may also have stricter requirements than the federal OSHA rule. So there are still some issues, particularly for operators who work across state lines, that will need to be resolved.

“Nevertheless, we do now have the makings of a nationwide program that is generally understandable, that is being followed by employers and employees, and that contributes to safety. So we have progressed in the 20 years since this crane rule revision began and certainly in the past two years. We will sort out the problems in time, but best to take a deep breath while you are waiting.”

At the sharp end of training are companies like ITI, which for 35 years has provided instruction at clients’ premises and at ten training locations in North America. Jonah Hobson is their marketing vice-president.

“At the start of the pandemic ITI was designated an ‘essential business’,” he says, “so that has allowed us to continue to train. Construction and infrastructure projects have to be done; all those involve lifting and moving and placing heavy objects, and that is where we come in.”

ITI adjust to customer’s requirements: “We provide training at our customers’ facilities, and at ten training locations in North America; we have recently opened a centre in the UK as well.

“Cranes, material handling and rigging applications are our primary areas; we can send one instructor to you, or you can send half a dozen employees to us, or a single employee who needs some skills and knowledge updates on a specific topic can do an e-learning course, which can be of great benefit. Taking that, they can talk to a real person as well for areas where they are having difficulties, but they can proceed at their own pace with their progress monitored as they go.

“In the US all our courses meet the minimum requirements that OSHA has laid out. We do certification through NCCCO but not all our courses are necessarily certification ones. Some, like the Master Rigger course, are more about skill building. They get a certificate of completion at the end of the course but it is not something that they need to flash at the gate to get onto a site. Instead it ups their game and their professionalism.”

Mammoet has a range of equipment at its academy
A trainee practices at the Liebherr ECOL Mobile Crane Operator course
Rigging practice at Mammoet’s ECOL institute
Liebherr experts provide insight into the course contents as specified by ECOL