Imagine working under 200 tons of structural steel being hoisted by two cranes. One operator has the skills to safely operate his crane. But the second operator, untrained and unskilled, accidentally drops the load on the 22-ft-high crib pile where you are standing. The first operator struggles to maintain the load, but his boom starts to buckle. You realize you've lost control over whether you will live or die.
Major construction failures in recent years have cost many lives and millions of dollars in property damage. Collapses not only killed three friends of mine last July at Miller Park stadium in Milwaukee, Wis., but also three workers at the airport in Portland, Ore., in 1997 and 28 at L'Ambiance Plaza in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1987. These and other accidents resulted partly from faulty erection practices or questionable crane operation.
HAIR-RAISING. Not one state now licenses ironworkers; anyone can rig a 400-ton roof section, build a bridge or erect a high-rise building. Just three states certify crane operators. How ludicrous! In Wisconsin, licenses are required to cut hair, serve a drink and drive a car. A person must be licensed to drive to a construction site, yet once on site can rig, lift and install structural elements without any consideration given to qualifications. Calling for a more rational approach, ironworkers Local 8 and Dale Miller, business manager of Operating Engineers Local 139, have proposed a Safe Building Act in Wisconsin to be introduced in the legislature this spring.
The bill would require any individual who operates a crane with a lifting capacity of five tons or more to hold a certificate issued by the Wisconsin Dept. of Commerce. The qualification process would include passing a written examination on safe operation and installation practices, meeting physical standards consistent with national standards and completing a practical exam. The requirements would be consistent with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's and the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators.
The bill also would require any individual performing iron work to hold a master or journeyman ironworker's license from the state. The license would be required for those who position and secure steel bars and cables in concrete; raise, place or unite girders, columns or other structural steel members; install prefabricated or ornamental metalwork; or erect precast girders, columns and structural members. The term for an ironworker's license would be for five years, with continuing education required to maintain the credential. Industry training facilities would be state-certified, to provide preparation for licensure.
After the Miller Park collapse, Wisconsinites were shocked to learn that anyone could operate a crane and rig structural elements such as the 400-ton roof section pick that took place that day. While the individuals performing that lift were skilled and not at fault, those who directed the lift lacked adequate practical experience in erecting structural steel. I'm confident now that the public will support a bill that could eliminate the possibility of such collapses from happening again.
As expected, though, the state chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors has come out against the bill. But in its "legislative alert" last November, abc offered little in the way of explanation, other than that, "OSHA and ANSI [American National Standards Institute] standards contain extensive requirements regarding the safe operation of cranes. This new proposal would require state certification (with limited exceptions) in addition to existing regulations." The facts? Neither the OSHA nor ANSI standards address the on-site erection process and the operation of cranes.
Associated General Contractors has not yet endorsed or opposed the bill. But other craft unions are voicing jurisdictional concerns. It is unfortunate that organizational politics could derail a safety bill that should transcend inter-union or union-nonunion disagreements and the Democratic/Republican divide.
Fortunately, steel-erection contractors in Wisconsin support the Safe Building Act. They recognize that the majority of those trained through our state apprenticeship programs meet or exceed licensing requirements. Ironworker and operator members we represent in Wisconsin support this bill for reasons of personal safety, knowing that crane-lifting capacity has increased dramatically in recent years.
ANSI has taken preliminary steps to institute rigging, signaling and operating qualifications. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic process has a tendency to address safety issues later rather than sooner. I assert that it may be too late if we wait for federal, standardized regulations.
After working 29 years as an ironworker, I have seen many examples of the untrained and incompetent causing injury and death to other workers on construction sites. The Safe Building Act, proposed by ironworkers and operators in Wisconsin, is an example of constructors taking responsibility for the lives of people in our state. If adopted, it could become a model for other states and the nation.