Tower Cranes Put to the Test

Crane accidents have risen in New York but declined nationwide

May 30, 2008 — -- Tower crane collapses, like the one that killed two people in New York City today, are a relatively infrequent yet inevitable consequence of high-rise construction, industry experts said.

But that has not stopped the questions about overall safety procedures, government regulation and crane-operator certifications.

While crane-related fatalities nationwide have dropped 25 percent in the past decade, from 97 in 1997 to 72 in 2006, they have increased in New York City, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In today's accident, the crane operator and a construction worker were killed when the crane collapsed and hit a building across the street.

Between 2003 and 2008, there have been at least 11 crane-related fatalities in the city, compared with seven such fatalities between 1992 and 2002, according to an analysis of news reports and labor statistics. Between 2003 and 2008, at least four crane and tower operators died on the job, compared with three who died in the city during the previous 11 years.

Part of the reason for the increase is the jump in construction around Manhattan in recent years, say crane safety experts. Yet they hesitated to draw too many conclusions about today's fatal collapse until the accident is thoroughly investigated.

"Whether it's a statistical anomaly or something meaningful depends on the outcome of the investigation," said Matt Burkhart, a member of the crane safety committee of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

He explained that tower cranes, which were involved in today's accident and the March collapse that killed seven people, are not necessarily more risk-prone than other kinds of cranes.

Burkhart said that New York has "some of the more stringent requirements in the country" when it comes to safety procedures for the operation of cranes.

In recent months, several other crane accidents across the country have made headlines, from a Miami accident that killed two people and injured five to a brake failure on a crane at Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant that resulted in a load of high-level radioactive waste being dropped.

Some crane safety inspectors maintained that accidents are more prone to happen in the United States because regulations are more lax than in other countries.

"I'm from Alabama, and I thought that the U.S. was ahead of everybody but when it comes to cranes, we're in the Stone Age," said James E. Pritchett, one of the five U.S. delegates to the International Organization for Standardization. "Other countries are much more safety-oriented, such as Germany, the U.K., South Africa, China, Japan, and some require life spans for their cranes."

According to Pritchett, the ACSE and the American Society for Mechanical Engineers, there are no reliable international statistics on crane accidents so it is difficult to tell how often they occur in countries with booming construction industries such as China and India.

Earlier this morning, a crane collapse in Shanghai's harbor killed three workers and injured two when two cranes fell apart while lifting cargo.

Crane safety in the United States comes under the jurisdiction of the federal and state Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has yet to institute new safety standards for cranes and derricks dating from 1971.

"OSHA believes its standards are sufficient," an agency spokeswoman said.

As for new standards for cranes and derricks, they have not yet been instituted because "OSHA is required by statute to explain the basis and purpose of the rule, conduct a regulatory flexibility analysis, a small business review, and a paperwork burden analysis -- all of which must be integrated into the proposal.

"The cranes and derricks rulemaking is a top priority. The Department of Labor is completing internal reviews of the proposed rule. We anticipate that these reviews will be completed soon. It will then be sent to the Office of Management and Budget for its review."

A representative for OSHA's regional office covering New York said that the agency has opened an investigation of today's collapse and has sent compliance officers to the scene of the accident on New York's Upper East Side.

Although New York and other cities require crane operators to undergo training, there is no national certification requirement.

American Society of Safety Engineers member Greg Peters advocated for such a national requirement in an article he wrote for the society's Web site.

Referring to a conversation with a colleague, Peters wrote, "You know," he said, "when my wife gets her nails done or hair cut, the individual providing the service has to hold a license. Yet, crane operators -- who have the ability to hoist thousands of pounds of equipment hundreds of feet in the air -- do not have to hold a recognized certification."

Others insist that regulations involving crane operation are sufficiently strict.

"The crane is much more stringently regulated than an automobile," said Tad Dunville, the general manager of Dearborn Crane and Engineering. "The regulations to operate an auto are virtually nil compared to regulations to operate a crane."

Accidents are inevitable with tower cranes, says Bernard Ross, a crane safety expert witness who has testified in several trials and has been retained by the property owner in this year's previous fatal crane collapse in New York.

"In general, tower crane accidents are infrequent," he said, noting that one of the first such fatal collapses, in San Francisco, which killed five people, resulted in state legislation to require crane operator certification.

"They're very prominent in any city and they can be susceptible to accidents -- during assembly and disassembly, in high winds and when the crane is being lifted in sections. Accidents happen inevitably."