...they like the extra assurance that daily load-testing provides. “If anything [bad] happened, it would be on me,” says Terry Pierce, a crane operator for J.E. Dunn, atop his tower crane at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, now under construction in Kansas City. “You don’t get any second chances,” he adds.

Regardless of load-testing, whenever a limit switch is tripped, e-mails fire away to Hall’s safety staff. They know if an operator does not perform daily load tests or if he or she tries to fiddle with a crane sensor.

Limit switches are mechanical sensors that trip when the crane is overstressed. “When the contact goes in, it sends a signal to the GPS system,” says Hague. At J.E. Dunn, technicians are the only people allowed to adjust the switches, which are calibrated for every job. If an operator tries to cheat the system, Hall says, “It’s an automatic no-questions-asked [situation]…that operator is dismissed within the hour.”

Tagged Out

With about 550 machines, Morrow is believed to run the largest rental fleet of tower cranes in North America. But even Morrow’s own management team admits the company is trying to do more to improve safety. “We have to change as an industry,” says Juhren, who chairs the American National Standards Institute’s B30.3 committee on tower cranes. “For years, it was just assumed that we did what we said we had to do.”

During the building boom, Morrow already had developed its own quality-control program, an internal mechanism for tracking its crane parts. “But we never really had a [quality-assurance] program,” says Juhren. In 2008, the company developed a system of tags—blue, red and green—that inspectors must sign and date. Blue means the part has been visually inspected and is ready for further tests. Red means it failed an inspection or test. Green means it is safe and ready to ship to a job. Tags are databased.

Every time a Morrow crane returns from a rental, it gets a top-down inspection. In New York City and California, where it is required by law, a round of nondestructive tests also is required. Tower sections are tested using the magnetic particle method, which exposes bad welds or cracks that are unseen to the naked eye. Bolts are tested using the ultrasonic method, which also detects breaks in the material. In other jurisdictions, Morrow tests its bolts every five years, and it tests tower sections only after structural repairs are made.

Foundation bolts – anchors, Main power disconnect switch, Hook sheaves – swivel, Power contact grounding, Support Guys – anchors
Fire extinguisher, Load chart, Window glass, Operations manual
Ladders - platforms, Section connecting bolts – pins, Safety rails – chains, Tie-in assembly(s), Chord and lacing welds, Power cable, Sheaves, Hydraulic hoses for leaks, Gear boxes for oil level - leaks, Slewing ring bolts, Counterweights secure, Motor – winch hold-down bolts, Wire-rope condition, hoist drum spooling
Control Function, Swing Brake, Moment Overloads, Hoist Overloads, Trolley Cable – Brake, Sheaves, Gear Limits, Trolley Limits, Luffing Limits, Hoist Limits, Proximity To Power Lines

Liebherr Group, the Switzerland-based manufacturer that supplies crane equipment to Morrow, only requires a visual inspection of these parts, Juhren says, adding that it is a good idea to go “above and beyond” the rules.

Another key risk that Morrow recently identified: electrical shock. Most tower cranes in the U.S. are electric and run on 480 volts of power. When workers need to service a crane, Morrow for years has required them to lockout and tagout the crane. If they need to follow live circuits, however, they now need to wear special gear. “The biggest issue is not necessarily electrical shock but what they call arc flash,” Juhren explains. “If you create a dead short with high voltage, it basically shoots out a fireball.”

Spurred on by an insurer, Morrow last summer began requiring technicians to wear special clothes, face shields and gloves that conform with the National Fire Protection Association’s arc-flash standard, NFPA 70e. “We were unaware of the full requirements up until last year,” says Juhren. “That’s when we decided to start our campaign.” A video about Morrow’s new training program is available at construction.com/video.

Invest Now, Not Later

It may not be the best of times, but contractors such as J.E. Dunn and Morrow are taking advantage of economic downtime to invest in safety—even as U.S. regulations lag behind. Only two states, Washington and California, in the U.S. now require crane inspections by an independent, licensed expert. But voluntary initiatives are large costs in a time of dwindling revenue. J.E. Dunn’s crane fleet is only running at about 35% capacity—down from 90% a year ago.

“When the ‘blue iron’ isn’t up in the air, that is a definite contributing factor in the profitability of the company,” explains Hall. But a potential bright light in the recession is these companies’ renewed focus on QA/QC—a lack of which regulators have identified as a contributing factor in prior crane fatalities. “In this economy, most companies are holding onto every penny that they can,” Juhren says. “We are actually spending money and putting it back into our fleet.”

Mandatory inspections will only continue to increase, according to Juhren. On Jan. 1, Washington became the second state to enforce a rule that requires most cranes to receive a top-to-bottom inspection each year from a licensed surveyor. California has a similar rule. Current federal rules require annual inspections but do not mandate the inspector to be licensed.

An updated federal rule, which lays out new training guidelines for crane workers, is expected to be published this coming July and to require inspectors to be “qualified” but not licensed. In all these efforts, “the ultimate goal is to ensure that the cranes are safe to operate,” says Hector Castro, a spokesman for Washington state’s Dept. of Labor and Industries. “People are the key” to crane safety, Juhren adds.

However, the stakes in the safety game usually go up after, not before, lives are lost. Washington initiated its rule in 2007 after a deadly crane collapse in Bellevue, near Seattle, attributed in part to a lack of inspections. California’s rule came on the heels of a deadly collapse in San Francisco in 1989.

Even companies like Morrow and J.E. Dunn are not immune. In 2008, OSHA slapped Morrow with five violations—including a “willful” fine, the agency’s most serious, after a tower section fell during a crane climb in Miami. Investigators found that the crew did not follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Morrow eventually settled with OSHA, the terms of which included knocking the “willful” citation down to a “serious” one.

Although the accident was not the sole reason behind Morrow’s new training, it “influenced” the curriculum, Juhren says. “Nobody wants to be in the spotlight,” he notes. “But every once in a while we get into it, and we have to dance.”

Likewise, in 1985, a derrick fatality on a J.E. Dunn project forced the company to tighten up its hoisting protocols, many of which are still in use today. Hall says, “It’s not about how much money we make...It’s not a success unless everyone comes home at the end of the day.”