Here’s a scary thought: In 48 states, just about anyone can say they are a crane inspector.

Sure, there are plenty of veteran inspectors out there. But as more general contractors, regulators and others look to cut risk around these potentially dangerous machines, they want a solid way to measure competency for inspectors. At the moment, few methods exist.

This soon may change, though, as two construction-industry groups have formed an alliance to develop a nationally accredited exam for this trade called by many names: crane inspectors, crane certifiers, crane surveyors and the like.

If governments or private businesses adopt it, the exam could become the new standard for people who certify that a crane is “good to go.”

Not required by the federal government (or under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's proposed crane rule, due for publication next month), such a credential is only mandatory in California, and more recently, Washington. Those two states launched inspector tests after tower cranes collapsed there.

The National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators, which helped Washington develop its test, and the Crane Certification Association of America, which administers a private exam to its members, announced last week at a Crane and Rigging Conference in Houston that they will co-develop a national exam that will be “fair, valid and legally defensible” for anyone who says they can inspect a crane.

Both organizations have something to gain. CCAA has a test for its members, but it is not accredited. NCCCO's programs are, and both organizations plan to submit the new test for ANSI review. Once candidates have completed the exam, NCCCO lacks a networking environment to nurture inspectors in their careers. CCAA can foster that networking and possibly boost its membership of about 120 inspectors.

Graham Brent, who leads NCCCO, told me that the exam, expected to be available in mid-2011, would fill an important link in the jobsite decision chain.

“When you look at the lifting environment, you’ve got various people involved in the execution of a certain lift,” he says. “The crane operator is critical—we all know that—that’s why we focused on the operator initially.”

Since the NCCCO program started in 1996, there are now 52,000 card-carrying operators in the U.S. (including me). NCCCO has since developed tests for other lifting personnel, with 1,000 riggers and 2,000 signalers now certified. ENR took the NCCCO tower-crane operator exam for a test drive in 2008 and concluded that while such credentials are no replacement for sound experience, they are a baseline of knowledge. Federal regulators agree.

The crane inspector test will likely be a written exam only. California and Washington do not administer a practical test, but they require five years of crane-related experience before you can sit for the written exam.

Brent says that it is ultimately up to the program’s task force to shape the test. Ed Shapiro, president of CCAA and a professional crane inspector in Connecticut, adds that practical exams for inspectors are not, well, practical.

“A practical exam for crane operators is quite a bit easier,” he says. Both Brent and Shapiro say that the new inspector test will likely not include an eligibility requirement for previous experience.

“That sort of falls into the way that the certification will be applied, which therefore is out of the remit of the task force,” Brent explains. “I think the test itself will police that,” Shapiro adds, meaning that if you fail the exam, you're not experienced enough to climb on a crane. In addition to mandating at least five years of experience, California recommends that inspectors carry general liability insurance and have a registered engineer on staff or on permanent retainer.

People taking the new exam likely will be in the hundreds, not thousands. California has 565 licensed. Since Washington’s inspector license became a requirement this year, 68 candidates have taken the main exam (there are five exams total). Of those people, only 46 are now licensed. The pass rate is 82% for the general exam, 79% for the mobile crane exam and 63% for the tower crane exam, according to NCCCO.