What to expect when they’re inspecting

21 May 2012

With a number of high profile accident investigations world-wide involving tower cranes now having come to a close, are we really any closer to ensuring it doesn’t happen again? Kevin Walsh reports

With the verdict released on two high profile court cases where accidents involving tower cranes resulted in the deaths of construction workers and members of the public, public discontent over the way safety is handled on construction sites is coming to the fore.

In London, the inquest into the collapse of a tower crane in Battersea four years ago has ended with the jury instructed not to consider a verdict of unlawful killing, and the HSE considering whether to pursue further action.

In New York, the trial of New York Crane and Rigging owner James Lomma ended with the clearing of Lomma on all charges related to the May 2008 accident on East 91st St, New York, that saw two people lose their lives.

While corporate manslaughter in the UK has in previous years been a charge that has proven notoriously difficult to prosecute, reform of the laws in the UK brought their first conviction in February last year for site investigation firm Cotswold Geotech.

In this case it was proven that the firm had not taken all practicable steps to ensure that the engineer killed, 27-yearold Alexander Wright, was able to do the job in a safe manner.

Cotswold Geotech was ruled to have ignored existing and well-known industry standards, which if adhered to could have prevented the loss of life.

But is it always so black and white?

With the cause of the accident in the New York case still unclear and issues of training and inspection Battersea accidents.

During the reading of the verdict for the Battersea case, the jury said: "On July 25, 2006, four inner slew ring bolts failed and all of the slew ring bolts were replaced. No investigation was undertaken as to the root cause of the bolt failure.

"On July 26, 2006, the crane was returned to service. At that time there was no adequate formalised process and procedure to allow for faults to be managed, escalated or investigated. In addition there was a vacuum of structured management in the service department."

It is important to note that the cause of the accident was determined as the failure of the inner slew ring bolts caused by overloading of the crane, which resulted from use of the incorrect manual during erection.

And although the coroner stated that the tower crane owner, Falcon Crane Hire, breached a duty of care by not performing a thorough examination after the initial failure of the inner slew ring bolts in July 2006, she was clear that the accident may well have occurred despite this, if the bolts were found to be fine, due to the overloading of the counterweight.

None of this is of any consolation to the families, of course, who after spending years awaiting the verdict may well have expected measures to be taken that ensure an accident of this type does not happen again.

Tower crane renters and manufacturers have proposed new guidelines and equipment, but following the ardent campaigning of groups such as the Battersea Crane Disaster Action Group and government unease at lack of government insight, a tower crane register was put in place.

Operated by the HSE, the tower crane register required all tower cranes erected on construction sites to be registered with the HSE. It would also mandate registering the date of the thorough examination, required by the UK Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations (LOLER) before the crane's first use on site, and details of any defects indicating an imminent safety risk found during that inspection.

This register acted as a double-check that the crane had been erected and inspected in accordance with LOLER, in addition to the HSE's standard inspection regime to confirm duty holders are abiding by health and safety laws.

The facility for the public to call the HSE and check if a tower crane recently erected had been checked properly also existed, as a measure to calm public disquiet on tower crane safety. All of this became law after the enactment of the Notification of Conventional Tower Cranes Regulations 2010.

However, after just one year of the new regulations came into affect, a report by Professor Ragnar Löfstedt, Reclaiming Health and Safety For All, recommends their revocation, contending that there is no safety benefit to the regulations, solely that of engendering public confidence. This recommendation has garnered some support in the industry, arguing that these regulations add nothing to the health and safety of workers or the public that LOLER does not already cover.

Secretary to the Tower Crane Interest Group of the Construction Plant-hire Association (CPA), Tim Watson, explains: "The tower crane register doesn't add anything in particular in terms of ensuring people carry out thorough examinations, because it would be perfectly possible for somebody not to register the tower crane.

"It would be perfectly possible for someone to put the tower crane up, not register it, and the only time anyone would find out is either if an inspector went along and said 'ah, right, I see you've got a tower crane on this site I'll check and see if it's on the register', or a member of the public rang up and said 'a tower crane has popped up across the road, is it registered?'"

And it is indeed hard to argue with that position as, except for in instances where a crane owner explicitly flouts the LOLER regulations, any defects in crane structural soundness would be picked up by the HSE inspectors when checking the health and safety duty holder on site has done their job properly.

But as a HSE spokesperson explains, there is no requirement for inspectors to check every tower crane on every site that they visit.

Duty holders for the main contractor conduct these checks and the HSE inspector will only check a sample of the duty holder's activity on the construction site to ensure they are competent at meeting the health and safety obligations of the contractor.

Explaining the spot-checks an inspector will perform, the HSE says: "As long as it fits in with the work plan, they basically target the high-risk activities. Construction in itself is a high-risk activity frankly, so they will go on site.

"The inspectors are all very experienced, highly trained, and when they go onto a construction site they will look at the activities that they need to look at to ensure that that site is being managed properly. "If they go on site and they find matters of evident concern, just because they sample doesn't mean that they're going to then sweep through the whole site with a fine-tooth comb. If they sample and they find things of evident concern then one of the options available to them is that they can then do a full site inspection. They could issue improvement notices or prohibition notices on the issues that they uncovered.

"The biggest point to remember is that the legal responsibility of ensuring everything is safe lies with the duty holder. The responsibility for ensuring everything is safe doesn't lie with HSE, our responsibility is to ensure the duty holder is managing health and safety effectively."

So with the HSE already stretched to cover the level of construction ongoing in the UK, and with the government expecting the body to make severe cutbacks on operating costs, it is hard to see how any inspection regime could become more rigourous. And as Löfstedt estimated that £51,000 could be saved through axing the tower crane register, with very little evidence of its worth it is a prime candidate to be disposed of.

Meanwhile, in New York following the failure of a lawsuit led by the Steel Institute of New York aiming to halt plans for an overhaul to the city's crane regulations, concerns are growing that the city's department of Building (DoB) will institue laws that will cripple the industry.

One proposal to come out of a consultation on High-Risk Construction Oversight (HRCO) between the DoB and New York's crane industry, is the setting up of a parts tracking system for tower crane components called 'Cranefax'.

This would require crane owners to list in detail the entire history of any crane part designated as 'critical'.

Robert Weiss, vice president of New York firm Crane Inc. believes this would be not only impractical, but pointless. He says: "The building department want to institute Cranefax, which is a component tracking database, but there was no definition of what had to be tracked, that was at the discretion of the commissioner.

"Now what I always had a problem with about tracking is what does it tell you? Just because you know where something is doesn't tell you the history of what happened to it. It's like reading half a book. Component tracking is a meaningless thing, it's a red herring. What are you going to define as parts, every bolt every nut?

"You could have thousands of things that need to be tracked and when a crane is rented around the country different components of the crane may end up in different places, it's not something that can be tracked, because most of the parts aren't even serial numbered. You don't have serial numbers on every boom section, you don't have serial numbers on every tower section, so number one, you would have to try to assign serial numbers or individual numbers to countless parts, and then what does this story tell you?

"If I know the part was in Washington DC or Kansas, what does that tell me? What happened there? You have to rely on the user of the crane who's using it to give you a history of what's happened to it. So you know just tracking is a meaningless proposition.

"But then on top of that, now the rules are going to say that if the crane is used outside of the jurisdiction of New York, and it wasn't properly tracked or you don't have a proper history of where it was, then you have to have the manufacturer of the crane certify the crane can be used in New York again. So say you rent the crane outside of New York City and it comes back and you don't get a complete history, obviously mechanics can do a full inspection and find out if there's anything wrong, but that's not good enough. You have to then hire the manufacturer to come in and recertify your crane, which the manufacturers said they would never do."

Cranefax is among a number of suggestions from the DoB on improving crane safety in New York. Another suggestion being put forward for incorporation into the regulations is that any repairs on a tower crane in the city be undertaken by the crane's manufacturer or its distributor.

For the UK at least, the CPA advocates this approach. Watson says: "Getting a third party to carry out major repairs is not a terribly good idea. Our advice is always that you go back to the manufacturer. And if the manufacturer doesn't exist anymore, then you have to make sure that you get professional engineering advice to work out a repair method and then you give the job to somebody that is adequately competent to do it."

But for Weiss, this is an unworkable solution in New York, and while the need to do something in the wake of the high number of accidents involving tower cranes in New York City is evident, a knee-jerk reaction isn't good enough.

"If, for instance, I have a crane set up in the middle of the street, say it's a Liebherr crane, and I blow a hydraulic hose. Well fixing that is a repair. Now that means I would have to call Virginia or Houston and ask them to send a mechanic while the crane is bleeding oil all over Manhattan, it's a preposterous assumption. I can fix my own cranes.

"So now only the manufacturer can perform repairs. Only every single part of the crane has to be bought from the manufacturer, this is the suggestion. In the crane business if we want to buy a filter, we part it out, we find out where the individual components are made, and we buy. It doesn't mean that they are not OEM, but we go back to the manufacturer.

"Liebherr doesn't make everything in their crane. The valves are made by Rexroth or Parker, your filters might be made by Mann. So when you buy a crane to keep in business you really need to find who makes the individual components, and then go to that manufacturer to buy your parts, because you can't buy everything from Liebherr. If you bought every piece of every part from Liebherr, Grove or Manitowoc, we'd all be out of business. You just can't afford it."

While few dispute the need for stringent rules in New York, there is concern that looking at the wrong area to try and ensure safety will simply make it an uncompetitive place for crane firms to operate while doing nothing to truly address the underlying concerns.

What is clear is that the crane industry is best placed to find a better solution for ensuring safety standards for all, and lest there are more avoidable deaths, the support of government, the public and all stakeholders is necessary to develop a workable long-term plan.