Keeping Tower Crane Soft Clashes' to a Minimum

Ask most tower crane operators how safe it is, perched up high on a multi-crane site after they've experienced a near-collision, and they'll tell you they know what they're doing • that it's the other guys up there who need a lesson in safe operations. That was the picture painted by several industry experts at a tower crane safety conference held during ConExpo in Las Vegas, Nev., last week.

There are fewer accidents among tower cranes today than in the past, said Leigh Sparrow of Vertikal.net, attributing that to the fact that accidents can be reported globally very quickly these days. Add to that the many safety tools that have been incorporated into tower crane operations. Unfortunately, he added, few of the alarming number of daily near-misses are ever reported.

Accidents could be avoided if contractors practice safety, according to Sparrow, but, unfortunately, corners are sometimes cut. Tim Rowley of Crane Safe Ltd., pointed out that in a multi-crane construction site, there is always a risk of collision. Operators fail to see the hoist ropes, jibs or counter-jib on other cranes, and they can hit the ropes in what he called a “soft clash.”

One of the hottest topics where tower crane safety is concerned has to do with the various solutions now available for safer operations. Anti-collision products, including cameras, alarms, no-go devices, and zoning systems, are considered standard equipment by more crane owners these days. The industry has experienced a “shift in attitude toward anti-collision systems,” according to Rowley.

But these tools, as well as load indicators, wind and weather monitors, aircraft warning systems, and other safety devices, are only as good as the operator who uses them, agreed conference participants. “The operator has to be aware it's there to help him,” said one crane company owner, commenting on the crane cameras he installed 15 years ago.

A crane distributor's representative said that for the sake of safety, training must be effective, planned and consistent. It has to include classroom time, hands-on learning, and on-the-job (OTJ) training, said Peter Juhren, national service manager for Morrow Equipment Company in Salem, Ore. “OTJ is where the other two come together.”

Juhren said that practical and efficient training is critical to improved safety. He observed that continuing education is lacking in the tower crane industry. Operators may know what they're doing, but may not understand it.

How much time should a would-be operator spend in on-the-job training? In the United Kingdom, novices complete a period of training, then go to the OTJ phase, reported Paul Phillips of tower crane manufacturer Arcomet, based in the United Kingdom. He said the issue of how much time spent in the OTJ phase was the question. Now, many novices are mentored by an experienced operator, though the process is in transition in Great Britain.

In New York, would-be operators must have “documented experience” in order to qualify for an operator's license, said one crane company owner from that state. “That's in addition to testing,” he said, adding that the state of Washington is considering the same process.

Graham Brent, executive director of the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators (NCCO), said it all comes back to the role certification plays in the process of deeming an operator qualified to get behind the controls. Washington, he agreed, is “grappling with the experience issue.”

But, how do you define experience? “What is experience?” posed Brent. “Is it time? The type of crane? The number of picks? It gets very complicated.”

In light of the recent New York City crane collapse, it appears that such discussions will be ongoing.