Early on July 6, 2005, a union operating engineer went to work at a Jacksonville Beach, Fla., condominium project, not far from the ocean’s edge. He set up a Manitowoc 222 crawler crane with a 105-ft-long main boom and 140 ft of luffing jib and prepared for the day’s first lift.
Another operator, who had been on the crane the day before but was laid up that morning with an injury sustained at home, had left a penny wedged in the limit-bypass switch for maximum boom lift. The new operator didn’t touch it.
The replacement operator began to simultaneously raise the luffing jib and the main boom from their stowed positions, against conventional jobsite wisdom. The equipment operating manual clearly stated that for a successful lift, the operator should depress the limit-bypass switch and operate either the main boom or the jib until the crane was within its normal operating limits—but not to operate both at the same time. That maneuver requires the operator to hold the limit-bypass switch with one hand and operate either the boom or jib with the other. If for any reason he moved the boom or jib outside safety parameters, the crane’s computer was supposed to automatically stop it. That is what the rulebook said, but reality does not always follow the rules.
According to a key witness who talked to investigators from the U.S. Labor Dept., this is what happened next: The crane’s main boom stood straight up, its cables started snapping and the structure fell over backward, pulling the jib across and over the building site. Parts fell off the crane, and the crashing boom and jib knocked site workers to the ground, sending several to local hospitals.
In about an hour, investigators from the local office of the department’s U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration were onsite. Six months later, OSHA fined crane operator Kelley Equipment Co. of Florida Inc. $1,500 and concrete subcontractor Pinnacle Concrete LLC $2,800 for a variety of alleged violations. In its accident report, OSHA focused on the crane operator’s blunder in leaving the wedged penny, and how the coin confused the machine’s computer system. Fault rests squarely on the operator. Or does it?
What happened that day in Florida is significant in several ways. Most crane experts and safety professionals agree that the crane operator, a member of operating engineers’ union Local 673 in Jacksonville, made several significant errors. But the mishap also illustrates how crane operators function within a jobsite team. Of special concern and debate is whether more responsibility for safe crane operation should flow to other project team members and how.
The Labor Dept. is now considering these issues as it drafts a new federal safety standard for cranes and derricks. The proposal was developed as part of the new “negotiated” rule-making approach between regulators and the regulated community. But it has been stuck in review since 2004.
"As long as the crane was working alright, you can get away with it."
— crane operator, Kelley Equipment Co., as quoted in OSHA’s report
The draft standard would elevate crane-operator certification requirements. But it also contains several provisions that would expand beyond the operator to either a qualified site individual or controlling entity the responsibility for safe crane operation, especially related to equipment assembly and site preparation. Other proposed language gives the crane operator greater authority to refuse to operate if unsafe conditions are observed. According to many crane safety experts, contractor pressure on operators to make lifts perceived as unsafe is one of the biggest contributing factors in crane accidents.
But the Jacksonville accident report shows just how tough it will be to craft the new rules and gain construction-site buy-in. The report omits the names of crane operators and key witnesses but provides a coherent narrative of events leading up to the accident.
Crane operator was moving the machine�s boom and jib together�not recommended.
The general contractor, locally based LandSouth Construction, had hired Pinnacle to build the nine-story, concrete-framed Ocean Park Condominiums. Pinnacle in turn hired Kelley to provide crane services and an operator.
According to the crane’s specifications chart, during normal operation, its main boom is supposed to remain in a position between 75 degrees and 88 degrees and the luffing jib between 17.4 degrees and 74.7 degrees. If the crane exceeds those parameters, its com-puter controls are designed to shut it down. The limit-bypass switch allows the crane to exceed these parameters for assembling or storage.
According to OSHA’s account, crews worked on the July 4, 2005, holiday, at a beachfront site that was very tight for a crane of this size. The project’s regular crane operator lowered the jib to the ground each day to protect it from high winds during the night or other damage.
But instead of depressing the crane’s limit-bypass switch, the operator wedged a penny in. According to the OSHA report, he did so to lower the crane’s boom and jib at the same time. Crane operators have been known to use a coin or tape to hold open a switch even though the practice is considered unsafe.
The operator’s serious hand injury later that night at home prompted him to seek a replacement for July 5, the day before the accident and a critical day of communication about the crane with a new operator in control. When he started the crane, the replacement operator left the penny in but noticed that the machine’s computer was not working properly. He removed the penny, at which point the crane would not run at all, according to OSHA’s accident narrative.
So the new operator reinserted the coin, and the machine restarted operation. He called Kelley’s sales rep that day and said “he could not understand the language on the crane’s computers,” says the OSHA report. The salesman then called Kelley’s technician about the problem. The technician told the sales rep that the computer needed to be reset and walked the replacement operator through that process, at the rep’s request.
The technician told OSHA that when he learned about the penny from the replacement operator, he directed the worker to remove it, which was done. They then reset the crane computer, and the machine resumed operation.
The replacement operator was instructed to call if there were further problems. Fifteen minutes later, he again experienced trouble with the computer and reinserted the penny to attempt to resolve it. “Honestly, I operated the crane knowing that the computer was not working properly, and the bypass engaged because ...