Testing crane operators by the capacity and type of machine to be used—which is required under today's federal crane rules—provides meaningful qualification of an operator's skill set. Without that, certification lacks the teeth to take a bite out of accidents. This level of testing reduces risks and can be done economically.

Some would argue that capacity is not a useful indicator of an operator's skill. However, the capacity designations used in Crane Institute Certification (CIC) tests are not arbitrary. As CIC's tests were being developed in 2007, industry experts determined that the best way to comply with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration's requirement to assess the skill of the operator was to devise tests around the operator's ability to control the load.

The ability to control the load has little to do with the crane being set up on crawlers or outriggers; it also matters little whether the crane is using a telescoping boom or lattice boom. The difficulty lies in controlling the pendulum action of the load as it is moved. Capacity designations of CIC's tests are associated with boom lengths typical for the capacity ranges tested. The larger the crane, the longer the boom length used in testing.

Certification by type and capacity also gives employers useful information for matching the qualifications of workers with the tasks to be done. Owners have a responsibility to determine if an operator has the right qualifications for a specific job. Certification should have the meat behind it to prequalify an operator to an employer. Likewise, most operators who have the skills to operate a 500-ton all-terrain crane would desire a professional distinction between them and someone who has operated only a 15-ton boom truck.

Opponents of testing by type and capacity are quick to redirect the discussion to the costs. It is widely assumed that testing to type and capacity is more expensive. Yet OSHA officials have admitted that the costs only rise when testing operators on specific crane models.

Additionally, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers proposes that OSHA endorse "bands" of crane capacities, which would allow certifying bodies to test operators without needing to test on the largest crane in a band. That's precisely what CIC offers.

For example, operators working for Southern Co., a utility owner that serves multiple states, are certified by CIC for approximately $1,500 per person, including the shared cost of the training, crane time, written tests and practical exams. For a certification that is valid for five years, the average cost per operator per year is about $300.

From a business perspective, these costs are easily recouped. The president of one of the largest national crane-rental fleets in the U.S. says the cost of certification by type and capacity could be regained by adding less than $10 per hour to the crane-rental rate.