On July 18, 2008, Deep South Crane & Rigging Co. gave just a few minutes of instruction to a crane operator unfamiliar with the controls of one of the world’s largest pedestal cranes, a VersaCrane TC-36000. Normally, training would have required weeks under the guidance of an experienced operator.
The results were disastrous. The crane collapsed and killed four people at the LyondellBasell Refinery in Pasadena, Texas.
This is just one example of what can happen when employers don’t ensure crane operators are fully trained and qualified to operate specific pieces of equipment.
Over the years, several other horrifying examples noted by OSHA in the Federal Register have built a strong case for improving crane safety. All offer chilling scenarios of deaths resulting from crane operators unfamiliar with the controls on equipment they had never used before.
Crane operators made up about a quarter of the deaths, followed by riggers who assisted them and construction site workers.
To prevent these deadly accidents and unnecessary property damage, OSHA’s final rule for “Cranes and Derricks in Construction: Operator Qualification” clarifies an employer’s duty “to ensure the competency of crane operators through training, certification, or licensing, and evaluation.” It became effective April 15, 2019.
“Certification is the first step, but it’s no longer enough,” said Neil Tolson, executive director of the Electrical Industry Certifications Association, Riverton, Utah, which develops and administers certifications.
“There’s no way training for certification alone can prepare operators for every make and model of crane. There are thousands of models out there,” he said.
Tolson is on the same page with Virgil Melton, a curriculum specialist with the Electrical Training Alliance, Bowie, Md.
“It’s not enough anymore to hire someone who’s certified to operate a piece of equipment at a certain tonnage capacity and expect them to start using it. It’s the employer’s obligation to train them and to make sure they actually know how to use it. After training, evaluation is necessary to determine competency,” he said.
Crane operators must be familiar with the actual make and model of the machine they will be operating, Melton said, “because the controls can change depending on the manufacturer. Controls also sometimes change with newer models made by the same manufacturer.”
For a fleet with all the same make and model and with all the same controls, retraining is not necessary for each separate vehicle, Melton said.
“Cranes and Derricks in Construction: Operator Qualification” also offers guidance on the qualifications for individuals who train and evaluate crane operators.
“They must possess levels of experience and knowledge great enough to perform the tasks themselves,” Melton said.
What happens when a company buys a new piece of equipment and no one knows how to work it? An employer can hire an outside party to train their crane operators, but it’s still the responsibility of the employer to ensure operators can safely use the equipment, Melton said.
Before starting any job, the operator must demonstrate the skills, knowledge and ability to recognize and avoid risks. They must also be able to operate related safety devices, operational aids and software. Their qualifications must relate to the size and configuration of the equipment, which includes—but is not limited to—lifting capacity, boom length, attachments, luffing jib and counterweight setup.
The employer also must substantiate the operator’s successful completion of the evaluation on a document, which is available at work sites. For any retraining, the employer must re-evaluate the operator and document areas covered by the retraining.
OSHA provides an exception to requirements for digger derricks used for auguring holes for poles carrying electric or telecom lines, but the exception spells out conditions more specific than many line contractors realize, Tolson said. Not understanding the application of an exemption can result in stiff fines or jobs being shut down.