Testing times

20 August 2018

Mobile cranes drive on public roads, but in the UK they have not been required to have roadworthiness tests. This is changing. Julian Champkin looks at the differing issues for truck mounted cranes, based on a standard lorry chassis, and for other mobile cranes including all-terrain cranes based on a bespoke chassis.

Until recently, mobile cranes in the UK were exempt from an annual test of their fitness to drive on public roads. Unlike cars, trucks or other HGVs, there was no requirement for them to have what is popularly known as an MOT test. The thinking behind the exemption was that cranes spend limited time on public roads. Instead, most are classed as what is technically known as STGO, or Special Types (General) Order, vehicles.

Road accidents involving cranes have, fortunately, been rare; but rare is not the same as non-existent. Clearly, despite the exemption all crane owners and operators have—and always have had—a responsibility—both moral and legal—to ensure that their vehicles are safe when on public roads. In the past, how they carried out this responsibility was up to them.

Now changes are being introduced. All cranes that travel on public roads are affected; but different cranes are affected in different ways.

Impetus comes in part from a fatal accident back in 2008 caused by hydraulic fluid leaking onto the road from a poorly-maintained mobile crane. Pressure for testing comes from public opinion, from government in the form of the Department for Transport (DfT), from crane owners themselves and from the Construction Plant-hire Association (CPA), which is the trade body that represents them and to which around 90% of crane hire companies belong. It is the CPA which has, in consultation with the DfT, drawn up the drafts of the schemes.

Two new regimes are coming in, depending on the type of crane. One has been introduced already, and is now three months old. The other is due to be introduced but a date has yet to be set.

The first regime applies to cranes that are mounted on a standard commercial vehicle chassis—for example, one made by companies such as DAF, MAN or Mercedes—and with a gross vehicle weight of 44t or less. For these cranes, the exemption from MOT ended on 20 May 2018.

Since that date, these cranes have been required to undergo an annual roadworthiness inspection at an approved MOT inspection site.

The legal change was made through an amendment to the Goods Vehicles (Plating and Testing) Regulations 1988. The government estimates that some 29,500 vehicles, which includes some mobile cranes fall into that class and will be brought into testing

The regime has now been in place for some four months. By no means every crane in the class has yet been tested. This is because the testing is required before the vehicle excise duty (ie the road fund tax) expires. So those crane owners who renewed their road tax in April 2018, just before the change came into force, have until April 2019 to get their vehicle tested.

This gradual introduction is, in practice, sensible, as it avoids overloading inspection sites with a sudden flood of vehicles to test.

Given that these vehicles consist of a standard HGV chassis with a crane mounted on it, and that the inspection is, in effect, of the chassis rather than of the crane, the physical testing should be straightforward. The items to be tested are known, are standard, and any DfT-approved HGV inspector will already have the technical knowledge to perform them. It should involve few disruptions and no more administrative burden than for any operator of trucks. Crane owners on the whole have welcomed the introduction.

It should be said, though, that only a small minority of mobile cranes fall into this category. Colin Wood, former chief executive of the CPA and previous head of their crane interest group, estimates that the figure is somewhere around 5%. “The DfT did not realise that such a small percentage of mobile cranes would be covered by this when they were originally framing the legislation” which was teeing in with similar EU regulations, says Wood. Most mobile cranes in the UK are not mounted on a standard HGV chassis but are on specialised chassis made by the crane manufacturers themselves. Liebherr, Demag, Terex and the like design their cranes and chassis as integrated units.

The second regime applies to cranes like these that are mounted on a bespoke chassis. The vast majority of mobile all-terrain cranes fall into this category.

Here is where practical difficulties prevent the simple solution of mandatory testing by government approved inspectors at a dedicated testing centre. In the first place, the bespoke chassis are so specialised, and made in such small numbers, that adequately inspecting them for safety may require very specialised knowledge. “The suspension of an all-terrain crane is very different from that of a lorry,” says Wood. So are the hydraulics, so is the braking system, and the examples multiply.

In addition, these are large vehicle—sometimes very large vehicles indeed. A seven-axle Liebherr 1400-7, for example, in road-travel mode is 18.5m long and is capable of travelling at 85 km/hr. Few if any of the current HGV testing centres can accommodate a vehicle of such size; nor is their equipment up to the job.

For example, rolling roads are used to test the braking performance of standard goods vehicles. These are essentially rollers set into the ground, which spin the tyre and wheel to be tested and measure the resistance offered by the brakes.

Maximum axle weights for most HGVs are 9t; axle weights for an all-terrain crane can be 16.5t or more: rolling roads able to take this weight are not common. The journey to any that were set up might well be of several hundred miles, involving long periods for the crane out of service.

Yet another consideration is that mobile cranes may spend very little time on the road. During a construction project they can be on-hire to a client’s off-road site for weeks or months at a time. Any requirement to send them away to a testing station in the middle of such a hire period would be hugely disruptive and costly.

Hence the regime that is being set up for this class of crane. It was worked out by the CPA in consultation with the DfT. It is voluntary—of which more anon.

In essence, the scheme is that such cranes should be inspected annually. The person carrying out the inspection does not have to be appointed by the DfT – he can even be an employee of the crane owner’s company – but he must be competent, and he must have the independence necessary to perform an impartial inspection. The crane does not have to go to a testing station: the inspection can be carried out on-site or at the operator’s yard.

Testing of brakes can be done on a rolling road, if one is available; and there are some: “The idea of MOT tests for mobile cranes has been discussed for many years.” says Richard Everist, managing director of Liebherr Great Britain, “and when we moved into our purpose-built workshop in Biggleswade in 2004 we decided to install a rolling road in anticipation of a time when testing would be mandatory. Of course we were ahead of the game and it never has become mandatory. But we use it whenever we do a workshop repair that involves the braking system.”

“And many hire companies have done the same and installed them when they move premises.”

Failing a rolling road, brake testing can be done with a decelerometer in the cab—a small device that indicates the rate at which the vehicle is slowing down; or by taking the crane to a set speed and measuring the distance it takes to stop. These last two methods are not so satisfactory, since a faulty brake in one axle can be disguised by correct performance of the others; nevertheless, they are practical solutions that can work.

A similar practical solution is that if a crane is on-site for a long period during which its inspection certificate expires, it is allowed to remain there until the end of the contract and then to drive to an inspection location.

For the scheme to work, an obvious necessity is that the inspectors be both knowledgeable and independent. Large or medium size fleet owners have their own technicians, familiar with their vehicles, and these might seem the obvious people to carry out safety inspections. Clearly it would be possible for their managers to put pressure on them to pass a crane that has a defect. One can imagine the scenario: “It is only a minor fault, and we can sort it next week, and the job is only a few miles away, and if we don’t send that crane now we will lose the contract and a whole heap of money…”

“For that reason we discourage owners from doing the inspections in-house” says Wood. “We would recommend our members to use external contractors, and the draft document leans that way. Otherwise the question of independence arises: but with the further point that the person who maintains a crane should not be the same as the person who inspects it.” As Wood puts it: “If your guy misses something in the maintenance, he may well miss it in the inspection as well.”

Crane companies are already familiar with external safety inspections. Wood draws the parallel with the procedure for inspection of the crane as lifting equipment. The Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations (LOLER), require regular thorough examination of the of cranes and many companies exist that perform such inspections. “Our expectation is that these companies will train up people to do chassis roadworthiness testing as well, and that new companies will also set up to offer the service” says Wood.

Companies that do choose to do their inspections in-house must demonstrate structures that ensure independence for the inspector. He or she must report directly to the managing director or equivalent, rather than to intermediaries; he must never inspect his own work; and there must be a statement that in the event of any conflict the managing director will always back the inspector against commercial pressures from other parts of the organisation.

“We are not saying that you cannot do the inspections in-house” says Wood; “but if there is an incident it could put the company at a disadvantage. An owner might well feel more comfortable with an external inspector doing it even if his own man has the knowledge.” In other words, it is about being able to sleep at nights.

Some operators have expressed concern that the scheme will not be a legal requirement. They would have preferred it to be, as with cars and HGVs, linked by computer to licence plates, so that a police officer could tell instantly whether a crane on the road was compliant or not. Colin Wood explains the reasoning: “The CPA is an advisory body. We cannot force our members to comply with a voluntary scheme.” Legislating, making the scheme official in that way would, he says, have delayed it by many years. Despite its voluntary nature, though, there is a very strong incentive for owners to invest in the scheme; and it does have teeth.

The teeth stem from the legal requirement that we mentioned at the start: the responsibility of ensuring that any vehicle on public roads does not pose a hazard to others. Owners are free to carry out that responsibility in any way they choose – and some owners might choose to devise their own schemes for regularly checking their vehicles, or to stick with the schemes that they already have.

“But if your vehicle is involved in an accident, the police will investigate” says Wood; “and if you have ignored the voluntary scheme you will have to convince them that your own strategy for ensuring roadworthiness was as good. That might be a difficult task. Showing that you have complied with the voluntary scheme, including the maintenance that goes with it, would be good evidence in law that your vehicle was roadworthy.” If there are no records of regular checks, again the owner might find it very hard to prove that the vehicle was fit for purpose.

He adds another incentive: “Furthermore, over time it may well be that customers will ask for sight of the compliance documents as a condition of hiring the crane.” It will give them assurance that they are dealing with a competent and reputable concern.

This is likely to be especially true of large-scale hirers, such as those on the scale of Crossrail and HS2. “We ultimately hope to see the scheme as industry-wide, and not just for our current members” he says. There is no date for implementation of this scheme yet, and it is likely to be gradually phased in. There seems a widespread feeing in the industry that when it does come, it will not be before time.

Getting tested

Martyn Berry, of family-run Berry Cranes of Towcester, runs a fleet of nine Böcker cranes mounted on MAN or Mercedes trucks and three all-terrains – two Liebherrs, one Tadano. He sent one of the Mercedes-mounted Böckers for its compulsory testing in May.

“We have always had our truckmounted cranes maintained by the vehicle manufacturer as the surest way of knowing that it has been done properly,” he says. “There are MAN agents in Bedford, 35 miles away, and Mercedes are in Coventry, 30 miles off; but the inconvenience of sending them away was offset by knowing that the job was being done by experts.

“When one of the Mercedes became due for its test we called in a local company that specialises in preparing HGVs for MoT tests.

They said we needed two new front tyres, and wiper blades; so we fitted those, booked the test, which was no great problem, and sent the vehicle off. I went along to watch, as I had never seen it done before.

“I was impressed by the professionalism of the tester. He had a roll of tachograph paper in his pocket; although such cranes are tachograph exempt the fitted tachograph does have to be in working order, which means it has to have paper in it, and he said he wouldn’t have wanted to fail it just for lack of a roll of paper! Happily the vehicle sailed through with flying colours.

“The test itself cost less than £150; all together, including the tyres, the total came to less than £600; and the administrative burden was not huge.

“When the voluntary scheme for the all-terrain cranes gets going we shall get outsiders to do the testing. We have the expertise in-house, but no test can be fully independent unless it is done away from company premises by someone not connected with the company.

I am all in favour of the scheme – it should have been brought in long ago - but I would prefer it to be compulsory as it is for truck mounted cranes. That would give it more of a positive impact. I have seen some very dodgy cranes on the road, with parts held on by cable ties; their operators can afford to charge cheaper rates because they are not paying to maintain their vehicles. A compulsory scheme would mean that the crane industry could join hauliers and others in demonstrating that we have the right gear properly maintained. A compulsory scheme would be good for all of us.”

Invest to test

Edinburgh based, Bernard Hunter Mobile Cranes has recently completed installation of an industry leading, roller brake tester for mobile cranes. The equipment, manufactured by VL Test Systems, represents the first of its type in the UK, operated by a civilian company.

Bernard Hunter Mobile Cranes’ new VL Test Systems roller brake tester has a 20t axle testing capacity and a 24t maximum drive over weight. Equivalent to a VL Test Systems 20733 model, the new equipment has bi-directional brake testing capacity with twin source remote control, permitting complete one man operation. Combined inground scissors fitted to the roller brake testers can provide a 13t axle weight to simulate load for applied brake testing to a height of 180mm.

The recently installed equipment can also weigh axles accurately and efficiently to ensure that each mobile crane, and indeed every LGV in this Edinburgh based operation, does not incur any overloading.

“Our bigger mobile cranes can be set up in a wide variety of lifting specifications to suit each individual job. This situation requires careful monitoring of each axle load,” notes Bernard Hunter MD Mark Rafferty, adding, “Our largest mobile crane at present is a Liebherr 500-tonner. We can now check weigh the entire, eight axle rig in just over ten minutes.”

The potential offered by this new equipment is substantial. “Standard roller brake test equipment within DVSA-approved Authorised Testing facilities do not have the capacity to cater for large multi-axle mobile cranes.

With that in mind, we have decided to offer a roller brake testing and axle weighing service to third party customers,” Rafferty informs. In addition to the new roller brake testers, Bernard Hunter Mobile Cranes is currently progressing with installation of VL Test Systems’ 9152 shaker plates. Their specification includes eight-way operation with 100mm travel in all directions to test steering linkages on vehicles with individual axle weights up to 16t. Once again safe operation is through an IR remote control. “The new equipment means we will be able to present our customers with up to the minute certificates of brake testing, axle weighing and maintenance, to provide proof of industry leading complience and operating standards.”

Bernard Hunter Mobile Cranes’ latest VL Test Systems equipment is installed within the company’s main workshop building at 600 Gilmerton Road, Edinburgh.

Located just a few hundred yards from the nearby Edinburgh City Bypass, Rafferty hopes that the convenience of this location will encourage use by third party customers who regularly pass by. “The new roller brake tester equipment has also been inspected and approved by DVSA and we are also exploring the possibilities to offer that organisation use, if required, when conducting roadside checks in the area.”

Testing facilities at Liebherr GB