Tracking towers

9 March 2009

High profile crane accidents in New York and London have led to pressure on regulators to establish public registers of tower cranes. Earlier this month, both the UK HSE and the New York Department of Buildings announced they would require tower cranes to be registered. Will North reports.

On 26 September, 2006, a tower crane collapsed in Battersea, London. The accident killed the crane operator, Jonathon Cloke, and a member of the public, Michael Alexa, who was working on his car near the crane. The crane collapsed onto a low rise apartment building, which was evacuated and left empty for a number of days.

As a result of her son’s death, Alexa’s mother, Liliana, began to campaign on the issue of crane safety, as secretary of the Battersea Crane Disaster Action Group (BCDAG). Supported by the local branch of the Trades Union Council and the Hazards Campaign, a network of occupational health and safety campaigners, it has taken a leading role in shaping debate on crane safety in the UK.

The accident in Battersea was followed by a fatal accident in Liverpool, ,in January, 2007. The crane in the Liverpool accident was owned by the same company that owned the crane in Battersea, Falcon Crane Hire. A coroner’s inquest into the Liverpool accident cleared Falcon of any responsibility, but the link added to public concern over crane safety. A further two, non-fatal, accidents in 2007, in Forest Hill and Croydon, exacerbated the criticism the lifting industry faced.

A pair of accidents in New York last year led to similar outrage among the press and public. In the first accident, on 14 March, 2008, a tower crane working on East 51st Street collapsed while being climbed, killing six of the crew working on the crane and a member of the public.

A second accident, on 30 May, 2008, killed two people. Both accidents involved cranes owned by New York Cranes. The OSHA inquiry into the first accident didn’t find New York Cranes responsible; instead, it laid the blame for the accident on the master rigger in charge of climbing the crane. The investigation into the May accident hasn’t been completed, but there is widespread speculation that there may have been a fault with a repair that was made to the crane’s slewing ring.

Tracking components

New York City’s Department of Buildings (DOB) responded to the accident with a $4m study of ‘high risk’ construction, commissioned from CTL Engineers and Construction Technology Consultants. In a press statement, New York buildings commissioner Robert LiMandri explained that CTL had made 600 visits to job sites and held a series of 12 meetings with more than 95 stakeholder organisations. The DOB says it held safety conferences with crane manufacturers and building officials from around the world. CTL prepared a report on their findings, making 41 recommendations relating to crane, hoist, excavation and concrete operations; more than half relate to the lifting industry. The DOB said it intends to act on all of the recommendations over coming months.

CTL conducted 269 inspections of cranes and hoists, and gathered input from 10 major crane manufacturers. The consultants made eight recommendations about crane operations and inspections. The consultants’ first recommendation was that that the city should establish a tracking system for tower crane components, including the turntable, A-frame, machine deck, climbing frame and basic boom section.

The consultants also said that the DOB should establish a register of OSHA-qualified inspectors to carry out crane inspections. There should be oversight of crane erection, dismantling and jumping (climbing). The department should require strict adherence with load test protocols, according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. There should be technical oversight of tower crane tie-ins, and of tower crane foundations. There should be an identification system for tower crane counterweights, and stronger requirements for bolted connections.

The recommendations have not been welcomed by the crane industry. Peter Juhren, corporate service manager for Morrow Equipment, which hires Liebherr tower cranes across the US and Australia, says, “New York City currently requires that all crane components be identified uniquely and that these numbers can be identified on the magnetic particle report (the NDT or non-destructive test). In the United States this currently is only used in New York City. Australia’s system is identical. They are not required to track the structural components indefinitely by serial number.

“NYC is considering making it mandatory to track every structural component of every crane throughout its lifetime. As tower cranes are modular, there is really no way to accomplish this, other than to have a fleet of cranes specifically dedicated to the New York market. Tower sections and jib sections in particular are switched between cranes regularly. Morrow’s fleet is global and we do not track each individual component by serial number, but only by type. The key core components, such as turntable, counterjib, machinery, and trolley machinery jib section are usually kept together, so these components could be tracked a bit more easily.”

Juhren says, “There is no way that this proposal will in any way enhance safety. It may show if a component had major structural repairs done, but this would only come to light if there was an investigation after an accident, not before. Structural repairs, when completed in accordance with the manufacturers’ instructions, using approved materials and methods, will return the component to its original manufacturer’s specifications. The city’s proposal to require that it be notified when major structural repairs are required, and what was done to make the repairs, makes more sense.”

Frank Bardonaro, president and COO of AmQuip, and chairman of the SC&RA tower crane task force, worked on developing new crane safety legislation in Philadelphia. He says, “I appreciate the idea that New York had, of trying to have a report that makes construction safer; but, I don’t see anything in the study that isn’t already being done, by OSHA or by the manufacturers. This doesn’t give quantifiable, manageable, processes. It’s just broad, sweeping, obvious generalisation. Looking at the 11 recommendations that relate to crane operations, for most of them they could have just taken a manufacturer’s book, and copied them from there.

“At the level they’re talking about, with the tracking of critical components, the question is how do you determine that a component is critical? On a crane, you could say that every component is critical. What are you going to track? Sixty boom sections? Six hundred bolts?”

Bardonaro does see safety benefits in some of the proposals though: “I like the idea of tracking critical repairs. You can set a measure of what it means for a repair to be critical, based on the value of the part compared to the value of the the crane: if the part repaired is worth 30%, or 50%, of the value of the crane, then you track the repair.”

Bardonaro compares the process of developing new rules in Philadelphia with New York’s approach: “The SC&RA tower crane task force put their recommendations together with the City of Philadelphia administration, and put together a task force to aggressively come up with regulations. They quickly came up with regulations that are extremely good for the public interest and public safety. The process was completed in three or four months and put into law shortly thereafter.

“The Philadelphia task force drew on the industry’s best: manufacturers, the rigging union, ironworkers, operating engineers, all people who do this work every day. They went to the ANSI/ASME, OSHA, and C-DAC regulations and standards, and worked from them. The consolidated effort didn’t cost $4m; it didn’t even cost the price of a cup of coffee, because everyone involved was happy to work on it for free. The city inspectors, councilmen and mayor were not seeking headlines, only results. The city officials from Labor and Industry did an outstanding job of overseeing these sessions and ultimately producing a workable solution.

“The city officials asked us, how we could get manageable regulations that could be implemented quickly. The regulations focus on operating and rigging certification; we’ve established through industry studies where and when accidents occur, and 95% of the time it’s because of human error.

“What Philadelphia did was take a first run at a rule, we told them it didn’t address training enough. The city reduced the amount of people on the working group from more than 50 to a functional group of 10-12 people, who were able to to get the rule ready for Mayor Nutter to sign into law before the end of last year.”

Bardonaro says, “New York spent $4m, more money than anyone has ever spent before on a standards search, but they didn’t bring the parties together at the same time to talk about the results until a week before the report went out. From a crane perspective, they didn’t talk to industry groups, or crane rental groups. I know the crane owners in NYC were involved, but it appears that their voices fell on deaf ears.

“There are a lot of brilliant crane people working in NYC, some of the best in the country. If the owners have responsibility, they’ll make cranes safe. New York wants to take responsibility for all procedures, inspections and prototyping. We’d all be happy to help develop manageable, and easily implemented, regulations.”

Bardonaro warns that New York is likely to face legal challenges if it tries to enact the component tracking recommendation.

“I’ve spoken to respected crane owners in New York, and they tell me that, if New York enacts these proposals as law, the city may be in the same boat as Miami-Dade [where a judge blocked local crane safety legislation after industry leaders complained the county was acting beyond its powers]. It’s not enforceable as written; it supersedes OSHA.

“They need to review what happened in Miami-Dade before they press on.”

Registering examinations

In the UK, the campaign to establish a register of tower cranes has been led by BCDAG and Liliana Alexa, whose son died in the Battersea accident. Alexa says, “It should be like an MOT service [mandatory annual maintenance record] on a car: there should be a record of who owns the crane, and how it has been maintained. When the crane collapsed in Forest Hill, no one knew who owned it, for two or three weeks. It’s important that people can know who owns and hires cranes.”

BCDAG argued for the establishment of a register, as part of a House of Commons Select Committee on Work and Pensions enquiry into the work of the UK occupational safety regulator, the HSE. In written evidence submitted to the committee, BCDAG said, “In Australia, a comparable jurisdiction both in terms of economic fundamentals as well as the evolution of safety legislation and technical standards, there is a national register for plant. All tower and mobile cranes are captured by this register. In the New South Wales jurisdiction, the register is called up under the NSW OHS Regulation 2001 making it a legal requirement for all cranes to be registered before they may be used in any workplace. The registration obligation falls on the person in control and may include the owner, lessee, importer, and/or employer.

BCDAG said, “This has a number of advantages. The first is that the ownership/control of a crane is clear from the outset for the purposes of inspection, enforcement and prosecution. Auditing of registered plant by age, design type, origin, or other factors, including accidents and near misses, can be done by the regulatory agency allowing targeted intervention and enforcement.

“The second is that it avoids a costly waste of resources. In some investigations and prosecutions by the HSE, identifying the ownership of the crane is a key element of the investigation. The third is that trade unions, employee safety reps, contractors, and other stakeholders can identify on each construction site if all plant has a registration label affixed and the date of the last inspection.

“The fourth is that concerned residents and community organisations can report concerns regarding usage of cranes in a locality and be able to receive relevant information from the regulatory agency. From a community safety point of view, BCDAG feel it is imperative for local residents to be able to access quickly relevant information on cranes working in their localities.”

BCDAG said, “We find it hard to understand why motor vehicles have to be registered on a national database, with proof of insurance and tax paid before use, and yet 50m tower cranes working next door to schools and houses may have come in from another country the week before and been assembled without any process to satisfy the HSE that compliance with safety standards has been carried out. Finding out after a death or serious injury is clearly too late. The public safety implications are no different to someone driving an unregistered car dangerously past a school.”

The select committee accepted BCDAG’s evidence, and included a tower crane register in the recommendations it made in April 2008. The committee said, “We are extremely concerned at the number of incidents and fatalities involving tower cranes and other plant on construction sites and call on the HSE to urgently bring forward proposals such as a national register of plant including ownership, age, design type, date of last inspection and any other relevant factors.”

However, the government did not accept the proposal. Responding to the committee’s recommendations in June 2008, it said, “The government shares the committee’s concern about tower crane safety but does not consider that a national register is the best way forward. There is an enormous range and quantity of plant used in the construction industry and it moves between sites frequently. Establishment and maintenance of such a register, even if it were limited to tower cranes, would be burdensome and unlikely to have the desired effect on safety standards.

“Owners and users are already legally obliged to ensure their plant is inspected, examined and maintained in a safe condition. HSE is working with the Strategic Forum for Construction to ensure that the industry understands and promulgates the practical measures it needs to take to comply with these legal requirements.”

BCDAG responded to the government’s decision with dismay. Speaking in July, 2008, Alexa said, “We’re really angry. How can the government say that there’s no need for a central register? When a crane collapsed in Forest Hill in December 2007, the HSE had to investigate to find out who owned the crane and how old it was! This is completely unacceptable. This information should be immediately available and the public should be able to access it. We’ll be doing everything we can to protest about the government’s response. We firmly believe that a register of plant is necessary and the Select Committee agrees. Why are the government refusing to take some positive action to save lives?”

Secretary of state for work and pensions James Purnell appeared before the committee in July, 2008. Committee member Harry Cohen MP said to Purnell, “We recommended a crane register with labelling of the crane saying the date of the last inspection; the response from the government was that this would be too burdensome, yet it is done in Australia and in France they have an inspector every time a crane comes on site. How did you get to the position that this would be too burdensome?”

Purnell replied, “We followed HSE’s advice. The HSE looked at your recommendation and they said that they thought the burden would not justify the effect. They do this the whole time, they always have to go through and say a case is proportional, is a voluntary approach, going to make an improvement and if not does legislation become justified?”

Cohen responded, “Is there a coherent strategy? If you are not going to have a national crane register or a national plant register is there a coherent strategy to make sure that cranes are kept safe, and if there is what is it?”

Despite initial reluctance from within the government, the HSE and the crane industry, the HSE is now working on plans for a register.

Kevin Minton, senior manager at the Construction Plant-hire Association, says, “The work and pensions select committee submitted a written question to the secretary of state for work and pensions, James Purnell, asking what the HSE was doing about the register. In December, we became aware that Purnell had asked the HSE to revisit the issue.

“The HSE spoke to us in December and January. We held a meeting with the Strategic Forum for Construction Plant Safety Group, and gave the HSE our thoughts on the issue, good and bad. The HSE went back to the HSE Board, and on Wednesday [28 January] the HSE Board chose to recommend to the secretary of state a voluntary register, followed by a mandatory register. It will be up to the secretary of state to decide if the register does become mandatory.”

The plans for the register haven’t been announced, but tower crane safety consultant and CPA Tower Crane Interest Group (TCIG) adviser Tim Watson says, “The UK registration scheme is likely to be web-based. It will allow the ‘competent person’, who carries out the thorough examination, to input the report to the HSE.

“The registration scheme will mean that it will be possible to find out who owns a crane, and where it is erected, from the HSE database. There may be data protection issues with giving the public full access, but it will be possible to phone up and ask for information.”

Watson sees advantages in this sort of scheme, beyond reassuring the public: “There could be some quite significant benefits: It will mean that the HSE will see every thorough examination report. At the moment, they are only required to see reports where there is ‘an existing or imminent risk of serious personal injury’. Some crane owners are extremely good at meeting that requirement, but some aren’t.

“The HSE could produce some top level statistics from the info that has been sent to them. They could look at trends, such as how many cranes had immediate defects, and how many had delayed defects. They could see these trends, and target their resources at where there is the most concern. It would also allow the CPA TCIG to see if people are improving their thorough examination and maintenance.”

Alexa says the BCDAG’s campaign on the issue will continue, “I’m very happy with the HSE announcement, but for the moment it is only a voluntary scheme. We won’t stop our campaign, we will fight on, until there is a mandatory scheme.”