...site inspections and is requiring more documentation of crane equipment. “Shortcutting safety in the name of development is not an option, and anyone who puts people at risk will not be tolerated,” said Robert LiMandri on Aug. 15, after he was appointed to serve as the city’s building commissioner. The agency says it is spending more than $16 million to root out corruption and beef up construction enforcement, especially in three “high-risk” areas: cranes, concrete and excavation.

Oklahoma City collapse killed an onlooker while he was watching a steeple lift.
Oklahoma City collapse killed an onlooker while he was watching a steeple lift.

Other cities and states are stepping up oversight, yet many industry insiders argue that the strategies may not be addressing all the hazards. “New York has an unworkable model,” says Frank Bardonaro, president and chief operating officer of Bensalem, Pa.-based AmQuip, which owns a fleet of 125 tower cranes. “They want to have more and more inspectors. After an accident, crane companies and customers are saying, ‘Well, the city said it was O.K.’” That’s a problem, Bardonaro explains, because “never should the city inspector have more knowledge than the crane owner.”

California is called the most stringently regulated U.S. market for cranes. After a tower crane snapped during a climbing maneuver in San Francisco in 1989, killing five, the state undertook a program to license inspectors and require examinations of cranes when they are brought on site. California also requires operators to be certified by a nationally accredited test.

+ click to enlarge
+ click to enlarge

Washington state beefed up its crane regulations after a tower crane collapsed in Bellevue in 2006, killing a bystander. Beginning in 2010, it will require cranes to be certified by an independent, licensed inspector. Operators, too, will be certified. Including Washington, 15 states require operator certification. Certification is important because it “pulls the level of training up to where it needs to be,” says Graham Brent, executive director of the Fairfax-Va.-based National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators. NCCCO, which has administered more than 325,000 operator exams since 1995, will roll out its signaling test in October, followed by rigger and inspector exams next year, says Brent.

August 1, 2005
Yunnan Prov., China

A crane collapses at a hydropower construction site - 13 dead

Sept. 26, 2006 London
A 165-ft/50-m crane collapses, killing the operator and a bystander - 2 dead

Nov. 16, 2006 Bellevue, Wash.
Tower crane breaks from base and collapses, killing a bystander
- 1 dead

November 16, 2006 Bellevue, Wash. Tower crane breaks from base and collapses, killing a bystander 1 dead
Carl Amuneson

In the midst of such regulatory fever, Philadelphia may be the most unlikely place to become an incubator for progressive crane rules. The city in early May drafted a rule that attacks problems seen in New York City and Miami. Rather than legislating new rules, which can be lengthy, it jumped straight into Chapter 17 of the city and state-adopted International Building Code, with a one-page rule that spelled out permitting requirements for tower cranes, such as how stamped drawings should detail how cranes will be tied to a building. Inspections also were required at least twice a year, mirroring California.

But local contractors felt that the rule lacked clarity and was not broad enough. “It was a knee-jerk reaction to New York,” says Bardonaro, who led a charge to appeal. The city invited others to help rewrite the rule, which was published in mid-July. Bardonaro, who also leads the Fairfax, Va.-based Specialized Carriers & Rigging Association’s Tower Crane Task Force, enlisted local contractors. One was George S. Young, president of George Young Co., a 139-year-old local rigging firm. NCCCO’s Brent also provided policy guidance.

Nuts look O.K., but tests reveal cracks.
Operating Engineers Local 150
Nuts look O.K., but tests reveal cracks.

Philadelphia officials, though not plagued with accidents, wanted to be proactive. “Seeing what’s been happening throughout the rest of the country, we thought that we should be doing a better job,” says Michael E. Fink, director of construction services for the city’s licensing department. The new rule is comprehensive, experts say. “Safe hoisting is a result of three items working well as a system...the crane, the operator and the rigger,” says Young, adding that a safe lift is like a three-legged stool: If one leg fails, “the stool may tip over.” Most cranes on average have one signal person and four riggers working under the hook, he notes.

Having quietly gone into effect on Aug. 18, the Philadelphia rule requires operators, riggers, signalers and inspectors to be certified by an NCCCO-or-equivalent testing agency by 2010. It also requires that cranes be inspected at least twice a year and sets general liability insurance on crane projects at $15 million. Previously, no extra insurance beyond the contractor’s policy was required to operate tower cranes. The rule expires at the end of the year, at which time the city council must adopt it as law for it to remain in effect. “I think it is the first place in the country that has looked at everything,” says Young.

With more than 2,000 tower cranes in the U.S. and 250,000 globally, the risk is huge. “The problems that exist are not local problems. They are national problems or international problems,” says Lawrence K. Shapiro, author of Cranes and Derricks (McGraw-Hill 1999) and a an engineer with Lynbrook, N.Y.-based Howard Shapiro & Associates. “Intelligent regulation is desirable, but it should be done on the broadest level.”

November 9, 2007 Dubai, U.A.E. Crane operator knocks down a bridge pillar, leading to collapse
- 7 dead

February 22, 2008 Singapore Anchors of a 121-ft/37-m tall tower crane collapse at university
- 3 dead

March 15, 2008 New York City
Tower crane collapses during climbing maneuver - 7 dead

March 15, 2008 New York City Tower crane collapses during climbing maneuver 7 dead

Over the past decade, Europe has increased oversight in the wake of failures. Paul Phillips, a Cambridge-based consultant and founder of the Construction Plant-hire Association’s Tower Crane Interest Group, formerly directed a crane company involved in a 2000 accident in London’s Canary Wharf area, where three workers died during a climbing maneuver. That sparked more oversight.

March 25, 2008 Miami
Tower crane section falls - 2 dead

May 30, 2008
New York City

Tower crane snaps at turntable - 2 dead

July 18, 2008 Houston, Texas
Mobile crane collapses in refinery - 4 dead

May 30, 2008 New York City Tower crane snaps at turntable 2 dead
Sue Pearsall

Singapore, too, has some of the most stringent rules in the world, like requiring cranes to be put out of service after they reach a certain age to avoid fatigue failures. Critics argue that is impractical. “You can’t say that a crane, which is overengineered compared with cars, should have a 10-year life, and you can use a car that is 60 years old,” says Phillips.

Young sees cranes moving from “an age of simplicity to an age of complexity.” Crane load charts 30 years ago were several pages long. Today, “that same-size crane may have over 1,000 pages,” he says. Only better training will prevent accidents, Phillips adds. “In the U.K., we have more regulations, but we still have accidents. We are not educating in the right way,” he says.