Alleging that the new Miami-Dade County crane ordinance could bring high-rise commercial construction to a halt, a coalition of South Florida construction organizations filed a lawsuit against the county May 1, seeking an immediate and permanent injunction that would stop officials from enforcing the new law.

Florida State Tower Crane Bill Fails

The Tower Cranes/Tower Crane Operators Certification bill passed the House but failed to make it out of the Senate Community Affairs subcommittee. It expressly stated that a tower crane is a temporary structure not subject to ordinances applicable to permanent structures. It also would have assured that state law would have preempted any county or municipal ordinance related to tower cranes.

The ordinance — passed in March just days before a fatal crane accident on March 25 at the Paramount Bay condominium project in Miami — provides standards for the manufacture and installation of cranes and other hoisting equipment, requires certification of operators and allows building officials to deem a tower crane a permanent structure, able to withstand wind speeds of 146 mph.

The Florida East Coast Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, South Florida Associated General Contractors, the Construction Association of South Florida, and the Florida Crane Owners’ Council filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

Rick Watson, a lobbyist and legal counsel for ABC, says the filing states Miami-Dade County did not obtain permission to enact an ordinance from the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He adds a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in another case said local entities must check with OSHA before enacting such an ordinance. The second issue pertains to the provision granting building officials the right to deem a tower crane a permanent structure, capable of withstanding 146 mph winds.

Watson says tower cranes are built to withstand 126 mph winds, and the Miami-Dade ordinance would require them to stay standing in 146 mph winds, and the only way to meet that standard with existing equipment will make cranes more rigid and susceptible to damage.

“This means a significant increase in cost and risk involved with tower-crane work,” says consulting engineer Lawrence Shapiro, co-author of the 576-page Cranes and Derricks. The book is published by the McGraw-Hill Cos., the parent company of Engineering News-Record and Southeast Construction. “It would considerably cut down on the pool of available cranes, and a lot (of crane operators) would decide they cannot do it.”

Bruce Whitten, of Fred’s Crane Service of Orlando and chair of the Florida Crane Owners’ Council, doubts manufacturers will redesign cranes to meet the standard. Current machines would require modifications.

Peter Juhren, national service manager for Morrow Equipment Co. in Salem, Ore., agrees that no cranes are designed to meet 146 mph winds. However, he says, they can be modified to do so by lowering the hook heights, which will require more climbs; adding more tie-ins with the building; increasing the foundation size, and using heavy-duty tower sections. He says all will increase construction cost.

Additional climbs involve jacking up the crane and adding sections, which experts say is a hazardous time in crane operations. Two March 2008 fatal crane accidents, the one in Miami and an earlier event in New York City, occurred during a jacking operation.

Whitten explains this process requires disconnecting at the top, raising that section up, sliding another section in on top of the existing section, and making the tie in. Whitten calls it “the most dangerous portion of crane operation.”

“The tying operation is elaborate, and it’s an elevated risk,” Shapiro adds. “When you add ties you have to release other ties. The mast needs to be flexible. It cannot be tied at close intervals.”

Whitten says more tie-ins will make the crane more rigid and less able to flex.

Assistant county attorneys Hugo Benitez and Eddie Gonzalez issued a statement that said: “We believe the ordinance is legal, and we intend to defend it.”

Whitten says some of his members are reporting plans to pull out of Miami-Dade County if the law remains on the books. “It has every crane owner running scared,” Whitten says.