Written by: Robert Ingraham, Former HSE Director Eagle West Cranes Inc. (acquired by Bigfoot Crane Company)
Human error is the most common cause of crane accidents. This extends to both crane operators and those workers responsible for maintenance and safety procedures. Accidents often occur when crane maintenance and operating procedures don’t keep up with the increasing risks and demands placed on the crane. Many accidents result from a breakdown in communication between the project manager, site supervisor, the operator and the workers on the ground. Accidents also occur when workers fail to follow safe work practices and procedures.
While a crane may appear to be a simple device, its operation involves complex physics. You don’t need to be an engineer to operate cranes safely, but everyone involved with their operation should be aware of and follow some basic steps for safe operation. Here are the steps I recommend:
1. Complete an Inspection. Verifying that the crane has received its annual inspection is only the first required step. It’s critical to check the operating functions daily to ensure all components are working properly. Experienced and inexperienced operators are often surprised to discover they may have inadvertently pushed the crane beyond its limits and damaged key components of the crane that could lead to failure.
2. Always complete a Field Level Hazard Assessment. A Field Level Hazard Assessment is the process where you:
- Identify site & job specific hazards,
- Evaluate the risk associated with the hazards identified, and
- Eliminate or control the hazards prior to and during the work task.
3. Complete a plan. Each lift is different from another, and it’s important to review all hazards, the load weight capacities, integrity of the equipment, the possible effect of wind, and other factors. The operator, riggers, and other workers involved with the lift must be part of that planning process.
4. Communicate the Plan. The purpose of a ‘Tool Box’ or ‘Tailgate’ meeting is to:
- Communicate – Hazards & Controls for the site specific task
- Communicate – Safe Work Practices & Procedures to be followed
- Communicate – The Plan to successfully complete the task
- Communicate – Assign clear roles & responsibilities to the ground crew
- Communicate – Agree to the plan and sign off on the plan
5. Follow the Plan. Far too often accidents occur when the agreed upon plan is not followed or enforced.
6. Know your Ground Conditions. The most powerful, carefully rigged crane is only as strong and stable as the surface upon which it stands. You need to know the classification for the soil or other material under the crane, and adjust your setup and load limits accordingly. While many cranes are equipped with outriggers, extending them doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve provided a stable surface. It’s important to know the load weight and how that is affected by the conditions of your jobsite. The crane’s load chart can help you determine whether your lift will be safe.
7. Know your Radius. The counterweight and boom travel within a specific arc is called the swing radius. It’s important to ensure that the area within that radius is barricaded off. It is critically important to establish a control zone for those authorized to work in the immediate area. Constantly check the area throughout the day to ensure that there are no objects the boom might strike. If obstacles are introduced, be sure that the operator and other workers are aware of the obstacle and the plan for avoiding it.
8. Use your crane properly. Cranes are engineered for vertical lifting. That doesn’t stop some crews from trying to use them for side loading or other improper activities. Using a crane to drag something across the ground or from under an obstacle puts extreme stress on the boom, the turntable, and all the structural members. It could potentially weaken key components and lead to their failure.
9. Communication. Whether you use radios, air horns, hand signals, or some other method, there needs to be clear communication between the operator and the other workers. That’s especially critical when a crane is making a lift in which the operator cannot see the load. Don’t assume that everyone knows how instructions will be communicated. Make sure everyone understands the system and follows it. (See Communicate the Plan)
10. Stay Focused. Everyone associated with a crane needs to stay alert and focused on the job at hand, especially on critical or difficult lifts. The lack of focus is a common cause of work related accidents, incidents and serious near-miss events.