Hydraulic lifting gantry systems are used to lift loads weighing anything up to several hundred tonnes. They have been around as a commercial product since the early 1980s and, used properly, they can be a safe and cost-effective way to lift heavy loads in confined spaces. Given the kinds of tasks that they perform, however, if something does go wrong – if they are used incorrectly – the consequences can be devastating. Damage to a dropped load could impact on the economics of an entire project. Far more importantly, the scope for serious or even fatal injury is extremely significant.

Maybe it is because these gantry systems look so inherently stable, being so solid and rugged, that there is a general (erroneous) perception that they are inherently safe. Or maybe it is because the history of their use is still relatively short, there is not the same catalogue of disaster that can be pointed to with mobile cranes. However, over the years there have been accidents, and occasionally quite major ones.

Earl Swan, president of LiftEquip in the USA, has been training crews worldwide on the use of hydraulic lift systems for more than 17 years. He says that no accident has ever resulted in one of the current manufacturers of hydraulic gantries being found liable. ‘This can only bring one to one conclusion,’ Swan says. ‘The accidents were due to human error.’

Swan continues: ‘I’ve done lifts of every type of application imaginable up to and including using eight hydraulic lift units to pick 635t (700 US ton), travel 60m (200ft) and set the load down like it was a carton of eggs. Properly trained crews make safe lifts.’

Training in the safe use of hydraulic gantry systems today appears to be led by the equipment manufacturers, which naturally have concerns about liability. According to Swan, the manufacturers primarily teach crews how to set up the system, how to operate the system safely and how to trouble shoot for problems. They advise customers to use an engineer when it comes to header beams, track, ground/floor loading and other variables.

Swan believes that demography is among the reasons why training in the safe use of hydraulic gantries needs placing on the agenda. The generation that has developed expertise in these machines over the past 20 years is coming to retirement. Their knowledge has often been passed on informally, on the job. To avoid re-inventing the wheel, that generation must not be allowed to get out of the industry without passing on their expertise in a more structured way.

Gathering knowledge from experience is a point also picked up by David Duerr, president of 2DM Associates and a prominent engineer in the US crane and rigging industry. One of the problems, Duerr says, is that there are no records of accidents and near misses with gantries – and these are the events from which we have most to learn.

He says: ‘Without knowing how and why accidents happen, it is very difficult to argue about ways to improve things. We have a long history of knowledge of mobile crane accidents and their causes, but very little on gantries. Perhaps one day some organisation will fund a research project to compile an in-depth and detailed record of accidents that have occurred with hydraulic gantries.’

Training is definitely necessary, he believes. ‘Whether from the manufacturers or from outside agencies, some formal training is definitely necessary. The requirements for setting up and operating a gantry system are not the same as those for operating mobile cranes and not everything is intuitive,’ Duerr says.

Steve Price of Fagioli PSC in New Orleans, USA, agrees. ‘A higher standard is necessary for gantry operators,’ he says. ‘While some companies adhere to their own strict standards about training, others simply have a “good operator” who is not familiar with the risks of not setting up and operating correctly.’

Tom Bennington, president of Duncan Machinery Movers in Kentucky, USA, says that the training his company gets from gantry manufacturer J&R Engineering goes beyond just being shown how to operate the machine. ‘Their guy not only gave us training for as many people as needed it, but he also came on the first job with us, for a very nominal fee. He will stay for as long as he is needed.’

Duncan Machinery Movers still makes use of J&R. ‘If I have a critical lift, I can email all the information to J&R and they will help with the engineering drawings and everything, and tell us what to look out for.’

Bennington has 12 employees that have been trained by J&R. Bennington’s policy is that employees must by certified crane operators under the USA’s National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators before they are allowed to start helping out on the gantries. After four or five jobs assisting, they might be allowed to take the controls, Bennington says.

There is no doubt that manufacturers take the role of training provider seriously. J&R’s vice president operations Kevin Johnson says that all his customers receive the treatment that Bennington has experienced. ‘Our gantries are designed and engineered with safe operation as the highest priority, but as you know, a system is only as safe as the operators that use it. We have a dedicated customer service manager (CSM) who has over 20 years of gantry field experience and is an expert on our equipment. Instead of a sales person or other intermediary offering training, our CSM is a full time J&R employee who is also involved in the design and production processes, giving him intimate knowledge of our equipment. As part of every sale, he trains each new owner’s operators in the safe and efficient use of our product. In addition, on request our CSM frequently travels to specific job sites to consult on lifts.’

Johnson also adds that, as with most things in life, you get what you pay for – equipment with higher specification features and a higher price tag also has a higher safety factor.

J&R’s great rival, Lift Systems, also takes training seriously. President Lisa Janis says: ‘Lift Systems’ training is coordinated with the extensive load testing that is exclusive to Lift Systems’ products.’ The training programme includes classroom and hands-on training for operation, safety and maintenance of the Lift System. Training includes a service, operation and parts manual customised for the equipment being purchased.

Janis continues: ‘Once the systems are in the field, Lift Systems provides training for new operators or refresher training for existing operators.’

Both Lift Systems and J&R offer re-certification of gantry units in the field and offer training as part of this programme.

Just as Bennington endorses J&R’s training, Lift Systems has its supporters too. ‘Their training, technical assistance and ongoing education is a valuable tool in itself, ‘ says Todd Phillips of Heavy Company.

There seems little doubt that the manufacturers are doing a good job, but it is incumbent on the users to take some of the initiative.

Here’s what the Specialized Carriers & Rigging Association’s Recommended practices for hydraulic jacking systems has to say about training responsibilities:

‘The manufacturer should make available training in the operation and servicing of each size or model of machine sold to the purchaser. In addition, manuals for each machine, and other instructional information, schematic drawings, parts lists and maintenance requirements should be provided to purchasers.

‘The operating company, after initial post-purchase training by the manufacturer/seller, assumes responsibility for training its personnel in the use of the equipment, and should assure each specific lift is planned and engineered to allow for training to safely accomplish the designated tasks.’

Both Lift Systems and J&R pass the test of meeting their responsibilities and also promote themselves as available to help the operating company meet its responsibilities by offering engineering support and lift planning services. Are all operating companies so diligent about meeting their responsibilities? What training is required, beyond that offered by the manufacturers?

Barnhart Crane & Rigging of the USA almost always competes for, and often wins, the SC&RA’s crane and rigging job of the year awards using hydraulic gantry systems. On this basis it can be regarded as an industry leader.

Jim Yates, Barnhart’s VP for engineering & technical services, explains Barnhart’s training regime. ‘Each trainee must complete specific knowledge and experience requirements on a particular machine before he is designated as being qualified. The content and breadth of the training is specified in specific qualification cards (qual cards) for the equipment in question. The trainee is trained by a qualified trainer, who signs the various portions of the qual card as the trainee demonstrates proficiency. The completed qual card is then reviewed and approved by management. The basis of the knowledge requirements for the qualification cards is Barnhart’s standard operating procedures (SOPs). We have developed many SOPs which dictate how we perform our work. These SOPs were developed using industry standards, manufacturer’s information and our own experience.

‘The field qualification programme is just a portion of Barnhart’s overall training programme. The particulars of the programme are governed by the company’s quality management system which meets the ISO 9001-2000 standards.’

Operator certification

All companies have their systems and procedures, but not all are as formalised as this. The issue is: should the rigging industry as a whole adopt more formal procedures for training. There is a body of opinion in the USA that would like to see the CCO mobile crane operator certification programme extended to hydraulic gantries. Bennington is with them. ‘CCO should extend its scope to include hydraulic gantries,’ he says. ‘The reason why the CCO hasn’t looked at it is probably because there are there are maybe 1,000 sets [of hydraulic gantries] in the USA. There are probably more than 1,000 mobile cranes in Kentucky.’

Bennington is in an influential position to push the issue up the agenda. Next year he is chairman of the SC&RA’s crane & rigging group governing committee. ‘It’s one of the things we are talking about,’ he says.

CCO executive director Graham Brent says: ‘We will consider anything for which there is a demonstrated industry demand. The increasing population of hydraulic gantries may make them suitable for a programme similar to CCO’s mobile crane programme.’ He points out, however, that the ANSI/ASME B30 main committee, which is responsible for producing industry standards in the USA, voted only a couple of years ago not to establish a subcommittee to address this type of lifting equipment.

Is certification a good idea for operators of hydraulic gantries? Here’s Duerr’s view: ‘I’m a strong proponent of formal training, but I’m not sure if certification, as is provided to mobile crane operators by CCO, is needed for gantry operators. Whereas there are dozens of manufacturers of mobile cranes, numerous models, and a wide variety of attachments that alter the operation of cranes, there are only three manufacturers of gantries and the products are not all that different from one another in terms of their basic operation. The education required to learn how to operate a gantry system is not nearly as extensive as that required to learn how to operate a mobile crane.’

‘We believe that proper training is paramount when it comes to safe gantry work,’ says Johnson, but he also stops short of supporting calls for a standard industry programme. ‘We believe that the safety-related programmes that we have developed, along with proper site planning and project engineering, are much more effective than any standard “catch-all” programme would be. We frequently assist clients as they proceed in the project engineering of a lift, as we view this as a highly critical step in the lift process, which cannot be treated lightly.’

Janis seems to agree. ‘We believe that we, as manufacturers of this equipment, are best qualified to train operators in the proper operation of our product. We recognise that knowing how to operate the equipment is only part of what is required in the field of heavy lifting. The key to any successful heavy lift in addition to trained key personnel is a thoroughly engineered plan before you begin. We assist our customers in this critical aspect of lifts in the field by working with them in creating their lift plan. We have substantially invested in the development of our quality, safety and training programme and believe our customers’ responses confirm our success in all aspects of this.’

Gary Lorenz, founder of Lift Systems and Janis’s father, is chairman of the SC&RA. He is at the head of the industry establishment in the USA and one of the founding fathers of hydraulic gantries. Who better to have the last word?

Says Lorenz: ‘Training is a very important part of the use of any lifting equipment. Equally important is lift planning and correct selection of lift beams and runway track. Many of these matters are addressed in the SC&RA Recommended Practices For Hydraulic Jacking Systems developed by a group of crane and rigging members and available from the SC&RA. The CCO organisation does not currently offer certification of lifting systems operators and I don’t think that this type of equipment, a “tool of trade”, would fit with the certification of crane operators.

‘Manufacturers may offer training in operation of the equipment and assistance in lift planning but the final responsibility for a safe lift remains with the lifting contractor.’