Several times each workday, the long blue arm of a construction crane at One City Walk swings a hundred feet above busy Roswell Road in Sandy Springs. It’s one of dozens of cranes dotting the skyline—and often working above busy streets and buildings—in this north metro Atlanta construction boom.
It’s easy to imagine the destruction if one of those cranes collapsed because it happens sometimes. Two “tower,” or fixed in place, cranes like those sprouting around the Perimeter Center area fell in New York City in 2008, killing nine people. Mobile cranes on wheels or tracks tip over more frequently, including at a Buckhead construction site last fall and in a Manhattan accident in February that took a pedestrian’s life.
Neither the state of Georgia nor any of its cities require crane operators to be licensed, and federal efforts to establish a national certification system are stalled until at least next year.
But federal and private inspectors and trainers say that’s no cause to worry. Any crane operator on a major construction site almost certainly has training from the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators, an industry nonprofit whose work is the basis for the national standards underway. And the crane equipment undergoes several federally mandated inspections, ranging from daily to annual ones.
In collaboration with an independent training company, Heede Southeast, the North Carolina company that operates that One City Walk tower crane, trains its own operators with written and practical tests for NCCCO certification and at least three weeks of “seat time” in a working crane with a certified operator.
“We’re not just throwing any Tom, Dick or Harry into the crane as operator,” said Jason Kenna, Heede Southeast’s general manager.
At Crane Safety Associates of America, a crane inspection and operator training business in McDonough, Ga., president and CEO Shane Adams has seen it all. He displays one scary inspection souvenir used in training—a crane’s pulley wheel, or sheave, with the pattern of a steel rope imprinted into the metal by the massive pressure of an improperly handled load.
But Adams said that giant construction cranes don’t make him nervous. It’s the truck cranes operated by small, local businesses that give him worries, he said.
“I have more concern with a guy going out there pulling a tree off your house,” Adams said.
Benjamin Ross, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s deputy regional administrator for Enforcement Programs in the Southeast, agrees.
“I see a lot of things that should not happen,” Ross said, but most of those violations are on small home-delivery truck cranes, he said. In his 38 years on the job, Ross said, he has not seen a fatal tower crane accident in the Southeast.
But he also knows the stakes are high, because he did see a fatal crane accident early in his career in Cincinnati, Ohio. He said an overloaded crane’s arm collapsed onto a street, crushing cars and killing four, including a 5-year-old child.
“Any failure in a crane itself—there’s no return,” Ross said. “It’s kind of like an airplane.”
‘You inspect every nook and cranny’
The airplane comparison comes up often in industry talk about cranes. Both are complex machines under enormous stresses and with high stakes for failure. And like airplanes, cranes undergo regular and complex inspections for structural or mechanical problems.
There’s a daily spot inspection for any obvious problems, usually performed by the crane’s operator. “That’s their butt up in the seat,” said Kenna. “They want to go over it top to bottom and make sure it’s safe.”
Then there are formal inspections done roughly once a month, usually by in-house inspectors who keep a file of their findings. Heede does theirs every six weeks. “We go over our crane with a very fine-tooth comb,” Kenna said.
OSHA requires a formal inspection at least annually, sometimes more often if a crane is heavily used, and that is often performed by an NCCCO-accredited independent company like Crane Safety Associates. OSHA may perform its own inspection, too, but usually only arrives if there’s a complaint or accident.
“You inspect every nook and cranny of the crane,” said Adams, whose company currently focuses on mobile cranes. Any issues are written up and given to the crane owner to return with a signed note about whether repairs were made, Adams said.
Sometimes a crane owner tries to bully the inspectors into getting a result he or she wants, Adams said. On a recent inspection in Tennessee, Adams said, the owner “ended up running [the inspector] off because the list of deficiencies was too long.”
But when a crane does fail, it’s usually not a pure equipment failure, the experts said. “The majority of the time, it’s human error,” Adams said.
Kenna said a tower crane is designed to withstand hurricane-force winds and is anchored to the ground with a concrete cube so massive it often is left there as a permanent part of the building’s foundation. But it could come down if someone overloaded it or made a mistake while erecting it. “We feel a tower crane is probably the most over-engineered piece of equipment on a construction site,” he said. “But the human element…that’s the wild card.”
‘A driver’s license for crane operators’
That’s why a movement toward professional operator training has been underway since NCCCO’s founding 20 years ago amid concerns about outdated rules and accidents. Today, only 17 states and six American cities require crane operators to be licensed. And OSHA’s attempt to establish a national certification has stalled over debates about “qualified” (experienced) versus “certified” (classroom-tested) operators.
Technically speaking, virtually any adult in Georgia could operate a crane without any training. But in practice, any major company will require NCCCO certification, which has become “like a driver’s license for crane operators,” Kenna said. Workers who give signals to the operator or hook loads onto the crane typically also must be certified.
NCCCO requires both classroom and practical tests, as well as physicals. It has a substance abuse policy and code of ethics, and operators must recertify every five years. The written test includes math, crane jargon and calculation of how much load a crane can carry.
At his McDonough facility, Adams explained the practical test—a zigzag course between poles that have tennis balls mounted on them. Operators must maneuver a chain and a heavy weight through the course, losing points for knocking a ball down or bumping a pole.
Adams notes that, much like with a regular driver’s license, testing is not the same as training or experience. The industry prizes “seat time”— the hours of real-world experience operators get over the years. But, Adams said, “no employer in his right mind is going to give you a million-dollar crane” based on a certification card alone; they’ll require a display of the operator’s skills on-site, too.
“We think certification has proved itself,” said Graham Brent, the CEO of NCCCO. “It’s been demonstrated to save lives.”
It works for Heede, according to Kenna, who said his company has never had a significant crane accident, a claim partly backed by recent OSHA records. “Knock on wood,” he added with a rap on his desk.