Miami. Dallas. Las Vegas. These major cities made headlines this year for their high-profile crane accidents, and they are not the only ones. From Virginia to Wyoming, workers and the public have been injured and killed by collapsing cranes. The unusually high number of fatalities calls attention to crane operation procedures and what workers, employers and the government need to do to make construction sites safer.

Between 1992 and 2006, an average of 22 workers per year died in crane-related accidents, more than 22 workers died within the first seven months – some of whom were Laborers. One of the worst incidents occurred in New York City on March 15th when six construction workers and one tourist died after a 19-story crane collapsed into an apartment building in Manhattan.

Waiting for Action at OSHA

The current OSHA standard on crane safety dates back to 1971. Significant advancements in crane technology necessitated OSHA’s creation of a Crane and Derrick Negotiated Rulemaking Committee (CDAC) in 2004 to accelerate development of an updated standard. The Committee proposed revised regulations that included:

  • Modern, up-to-date crane models
  • Power line safety
  • “Controlling entities” on site to prevent crane tip-overs
  • Crane operator certification through either an accredited nationally recognized organization or an employer-designated training program
  • Updated, mandatory requirements for signal persons
  • Assembly and disassembly hazard assessment (conducted by a qualified professional)

The proposal also included provisions for safety devices, operational aids, signals, equipment modifications, inspections, fall protection and more. For more information, read a review of the proposal on Cranes Today Magazine. You can read the full proposal here.

In addition to the deaths, dozens of individuals have been injured, and the structural damage done onsite and to nearby buildings runs into millions of dollars.  Anyone who lives and commutes near cranes may be in harm’s way. From Capitol Hill to construction sites, everyone is asking, “Is enough being done to keep people safe?”

he ultimate responsibility of worker safety lies with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The agency’s failure to act came under fire in June when the House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and Labor questioned OSHA’s delay in proposing a crane safety standard that was developed by an advisory committee more than four years ago (see sidebar). A proposed standard is now due to be published by the end of the summer. However, the lengthy approval process that follows publication could further be delayed due to the changing of the Administration.   

Also, OSHA has no jurisdiction over public safety, which has put an extra burden on state and city (Houston, Austin) government agencies. For example, the gap left by OSHA allowed the Department of Buildings to step in for New York City. While OSHA only has 15 compliance officers for the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, the Department of Buildings has a staff of over 100 people to enforce construction safety. The Department of Buildings also has an advantage over OSHA in that it is able to issue Stop Work Orders. Much more severe than a fine, Stop Work Orders can halt the construction on a site that does not meet safety regulations.  

Crane manufacturers are also among the groups taking heat in the recent months. While investigators take into account human error, some of the crane accidents were due to equipment failure.  For example, in the May 30th accident that occurred in New York’s Upper East Side, the crane snapped and collapsed into an apartment building. A weld failure caused the cab to separate from the tower mast, smash into a penthouse apartment and tumble into the street, killing the crane operator and another construction worker.  New York Crane and Equipment, which owned that crane and the crane that was involved in the March 15th accident, is currently under investigation.

Crane operator training has also been called into question. Aside from on-site training, the federal government does not mandate certification. Fifteen states require workers to be certified through the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators (NCCCO). The NCCCO offers a nationally accredited program not only for mobile and tower crane operators, but also for overhead crane operators, signal persons and riggers. It also advocates stricter safety guidelines. In early June at the National Press Club, the Commission joined a panel of crane industry experts to assess ways to improve safety regulations. At the press conference, Executive Director Graham Brent told the media that certification and training of workers involved in crane construction can prevent costly mistakes which lead to personal and financial loss.

Everyone should be concerned about crane safety – not just crane operators. Laborers – who work the other end of crane operations, attaching and disconnecting loads and signaling the operators above – know that it takes a team of individuals to get the job done quickly and safely. For more information on the Committee hearing on construction safety, read our report from Capitol Hill. For more information on occupational health and safety, contact the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America at (202) 628-5465.

[Jennifer E. Jones]