It is reasonable to assume that crane operator training makes a valuable contribution to industry safety. But any examination of the relative success of different approaches around the globe is hindered by the lack of a single system of reporting accidents and collating statistics. Some countries such as The Netherlands do not publish accident statistics, while Canada has reliable statistics only for fatal accidents.

The intention here is not to search for “the best” or “the worst”, but merely to highlight the relationship between a well functioning training regime and accident rates and see what can be learned from the experiences of others.

Looking into various statistics reveals a number of different reasons for accidents. In Ontario 43% of all mobile crane accidents are due to contact with overhead powerlines. This is also the cause of a similar proportion of fatal crane accidents in the USA, according to a study by the Centre to Protect Workers’ Rights which was published in October 1997.

This study found that 198 out of 502 fatal crane accidents (39%) between 1984 and 1994 were due to electrocution (see table, p29).

In Denmark, though, powerline contact is a rare cause of accidents, as most cables are dug into pavements.

One of the more interesting features when comparing, say, Canada with the USA, is that crane operator training has been a legal requirement in some states of Canada for more than 20 years while the USA has only relatively recently launched a national training system. And though the number of companies signing up to the US scheme are growing at an encouraging rate, it is a voluntary system without the full weight of the law behind it.

The Centre to Protect Workers’ Rights said it was surprised to find that 12% of crane-related deaths (58 out of 502) were linked to assembly/dismantling causes. Previous studies, such as one in Ontario, Canada, had reported that such deaths were 4% of the total. Most of the deaths in this category (48 out of 58) occurred when a worker was underneath a boom, knocking lower supporting boom pins out, and the boom fell on the worker.

In Denmark there is no clear trend in causes of accidents, but it is riggers who are most often the victims of crane accidents and the vast majority of accidents occur outside areas covered by crane certification.

A Danish Occupational Safety & Health Administration report in March 1997 stated that between 1993 and 1995 “only” 273 accidents out of 4,584 were the fault of the crane or crane operator, whereas the rest were due to the improper use of rigging gear.

(The total 4,584 accidents in Denmark includes 867 where severe injuries resulted and 24 fatal accidents. The remaining 3,693 are reported as minor accidents. It should also be mentioned that crane and other hoisting facilities are given broad definitions, ie. “hotels and restaurants” account for 16 accidents and “office and administration” 156.) Roughly 92% of all accidents in Denmark involve people outside the crane. However the main cause of accidents points clearly in the direction of incompetency in handling goods and gear when rigging the load.

It might well be argued that this is not unconnected to the fact that the only person who has to be professionally qualified is the crane operator, who in return carries all responsibilities when lifting a load. It is surely not healthy to relieve every one else of all responsibility when rigging and lifting a load, as it may lead to negligence and carelessness by the rigger.

Norway’s crane operator training scheme was introduced in 1974, and apart from 1987 there has been a steady decline in the number of fatal accidents since. But it is not resting on its laurels and has recently introduced a new training system, for a two year trial period, after which the industry has the opportunity to propose amendments.

Possible targets for further improvement include the road transport of mobile cranes as almost 50% of all mobile crane accidents in Norway occur while the machine is en route between assignments.

In South Africa, the Driven Machinery Regulation 1983 stipulates that crane operators must receive the training necessary to operate the machine safely. Recent figures show that the number of fatal accidents involving “cranes, hoists, escalators and conveyors” fell from 31 in 1991 to 6 in 1995.

Though there is a growing awareness of training, Transvaal Training Centre manager Stuart Sandler says that much of the crane operator training on offer is not of a high standard. The Transvaal Training Centre is one of the few to be certified by the Ministry of Labour.

Japan Crane Association data shows that accidents involving mobile cranes in that country are declining more quickly than those involving other types of cranes. One of the reasons for this could be the requirement for a certificate when operating a crane above the 5t limit.

However, statistics are not available to test the plausible theory that operators without any training, that is operators of cranes and hoists outside the certification regulations, account for the majority of accidents.

Perhaps the most interesting nation to look at is New Zealand where official figures show just four fatal accidents involving cranes since 1993. New Zealand has an extensive syllabus for construction industry training programmes and the training standards for crane operator certificates are based on an advanced system built up of units and credits.

The normal duration of one credit is 10 to 12 hours, and 61 credits are needed for a mobile crane operator certificate, all related specifically to the course unit of mobile crane operating. Thus before sitting the final test, crane operators have a minimum of 610 and a maximum of 720 hours of training.

To become an advanced operator or a crane dispatcher, a further number of credits and units are required. The programme includes the option of applying to become a crane training assessor.

The system is incorporated into the general student programmes of New Zealand, making it possible to bring any college degree or diploma into credits or exams passed into the study plan.

All around the world there is a trend towards greater emphasis on training and certifying crane operators and accident rates are generally falling. But there are still many outside the net and it is here that accident rates appear to continue unchecked.

For example, in Denmark, home of one of the more developed certification regimes, there are no compulsory training requirements for riggers or banksmen. The legal requirement states that apprentices and other workers under 18 years old must be supervised by an older person, but the fact that no qualification is needed, beyond being over 18, means in effect that the blind could be leading the blind.

Crane and rigging safety consultant Bob De Benedictis (now retired) of North Carolina, USA, has investigated about 600 accidents over the course of his career. He reckons that about 40% were caused by faulty rigging, for which a crane operator could not be held responsible, and he argues that crane safety will improve only when responsibility for lifts is directed at riggers as much as at crane operators.

Perhaps it is time to widen the net of operator training and extend it beyond operators to riggers, who are the industry’s greatest victims.

It is essential that they too receive proper training in order to understand not only the methods of rigging, but also the crane that they are servicing when rigging a load.