Photo by John Guzzon for ENR
An operator moves a barrel through a slalom course during a competition this month in Las Vegas.

Companies that test crane operators disagree with each other on the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration's proposal to push back by three years mandatory certification for these workers. Public comments closed on March 12 for the proposed delay, which OSHA floated earlier in the year after industry groups had asked the safety agency to revise testing requirements.

"We are ready to go," says Debbie Dickinson, executive director of Crane Institute Certification (CIC), speaking of her testing company's readiness to meet the current rule, which is due to phase in on Nov. 10 of this year. "We are not in favor of the delay because studies show there are 22 injuries every year because people are not certified."

According to Dickinson and others, the proposed delay comes down to some hesitancy in the construction community to conform to the existing OSHA certification requirements that are tied to the type and capacity of the equipment. She says those who want the capacity requirement scrapped have pushed OSHA to make the delay and revise the rules. Of the four crane-operator testing agencies available to construction employers, two companies, including CIC, test by type and capacity, while two test only by type.

Graham Brent, executive director of the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators, disagrees with Dickinson's position, noting that his group lobbied OSHA to make the delay. Many who operate construction firms think the capacity requirement was not intended by members of the Cranes and Derricks Rulemaking Advisory Committee (C-DAC), which OSHA formed in 2003 to help draft the new regulation, Brent explains. The current rules went into effect in November 2010 with a four-year phased period for operator testing.

"No one wants a delay," says Brent. "We have been supportive of these rules since the time that they were being drafted." However, a delay is necessary, Brent adds, because testing based on capacity likely will not impact safety. He cites a study in California that revealed crane-related fatalities dropped after the state adopted NCCCO's program, also commonly called CCO, which certifies operators based on the type of machine and not its capacity.

Under OSHA's proposal, the new requirement would come due on Nov. 10, 2017, to give the safety agency time to issue new rules. The current rules say operators must take a type-and-capacity test accredited by a recognized auditor, such as the National Commission for Certifying Agencies or the American National Standards Institute, by Nov. 10, 2014. If the date stands, many existing certifications would be rendered invalid.

"People say this is an urgent safety matter. That's true," Brent says. "But again, it goes back to where we want to be for the next 30 years."

Of the more than 65 comments that OSHA has received about the proposal, many support the delay and recommend that future testing rules not include capacity. Some contend the revised rules should stipulate that employers have the final say on who is qualified to operate a crane.

"We ask that OSHA give the industry the time it takes to make this right," noted William Smith, executive vice president of claims and risk management for NationsBuilders Insurance Services Inc., in his comments. "[Leaving the rules stand] would take us back in time, not forward, in protecting lives," he added.

Another commenter suggests politics are driving the delay. "NCCCO made no effort … to comply to OSHA," said Hans Markel, president of Kissimmee Crane School. "Is OSHA to comply to NCCCO, or is NCCCO to comply to OSHA?" He averred that capacity is a valid testing criterion, citing similar tests for commercial truck drivers.

OSHA is reviewing the public comments, but if the agency does not move to delay certification by Nov. 10, testing on type and capacity will go into effect this year, other commenters note.

Experts involved with the NCCCO program carry influence in the construction industry in part because some of them helped shape the current OSHA crane and derrick rules. When the OSHA rules were being developed, NCCCO was the only nationally accredited testing agency for crane operators, notes Tressi Cordaro, an attorney at law firm Jackson Lewis in Washington, D.C., and a former OSHA employee. "Everything was being modeled on CCO," Cordaro explains. During negotiations, she adds, C-DAC members believed that type was more important than capacity. "I don't think [capacity] was ever intended by C-DAC members," Cordaro says.