Crane safety message booms across Canada

Keith Norbury
April 06, 2016
By Keith Norbury

Safety in heavy lifting has been a recurring theme for straight years now at the annual Crane & Rigging Conference Canada in Edmonton.

Another recurring thread is a sense that the conferences have been preaching about safety to the choir. Those in the industry that have a sincere interest in improving crane safety attend the conferences. They already take safety seriously, not just in words but in actions.

Unfortunately, as has been said during these conferences time and again, those who stand  to benefit the most from the safety messages and advice aren’t as likely to show up for these kinds of educational sessions.

A couple of other things about crane safety came into sharper focus at the most recent C&RC Canada. One was the chilling reminder that crane hazards aren’t always obvious. As Cecil Elliott, a safety rep with AmQuip Corporation, revealed during his presentation, the mere act of removing a pin from a crane assembly can have deadly consequences. To AmQuip’s credit, the company didn’t dismiss the tragedy — in which a splinter of metal killed a man — as a fluke. The company moved quickly to address the danger by working with the U.S. federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration and a tool manufacturer to develop a safer backout punch. And none too soon — another worker was injured during a similar maneuver three weeks after the fatality. (See story beginning on page 1.) Spreading the word about the availability of this safer backout punch has the potential to save lives or spare workers from serious injury.

During a panel discussion earlier in the conference, Jim Wiethorn, a professional engineer who literally wrote the book on crane accidents, offered a disturbing tale of his own. A worker in California was on the back of a trailer loading concrete traffic barriers. He saw a crane back into a powerline but he said nothing. Three people died. Later on the witness stand in court, Wiethorn asked the worker why he kept silent. “It’s not my job,” Wiethorn recalled the man saying.

The clear implication is that on a work site, safety is the job of everyone. Workers need to look out for one another.

That should be a given.

So it was disturbing to hear from veteran crane operator Robert MacFarlane that he felt compelled to quit his job when his safety concerns were ignored. He was rightfully worried about the stability of a custom-built auxiliary crane he was assembling on a condo tower in downtown Toronto earlier this year. So he asked for documentation to prove the crane was properly engineered and inspected. Ontario’s Ministry of Labour subsequently requested the same or similar documentation and imposed a stop-worker order on assembling the crane until it receives that documentation.

That request for documentation now seems like a moot point, given that the contractor and developer of the site have agreed to take down the controversial crane — a job that was wrapping up as this edition went to press.

One might be tempted to say, “No harm, no foul” because the crane never went into operation. But that’s only because someone put his job on line, and potentially his career on the line. As a whistle-blower, MacFarlane now wonders if he has become a pariah to future employers.

That would be a horrible shame. He not only had the right to raise questions about the machine he was assembling, he had an obligation to raise them. Sure, his job was to pull levers on the tower crane he was running. But given what he saw, keeping silent would be akin to watching quietly as a crane backed into a power line.

Perhaps that auxiliary crane would have been just fine and worked as promised to lift components for a building maintenance unit onto the roof of that condo tower. Then again, the auxiliary crane might have failed during its final assembly and crashed 700 feet to the ground below and taken MacFarlane’s tower crane down with it. And in the case of the latter scenario, he noted, “my ass would be on the rug.”

As it should be. A crane operator has a huge responsibility — to ensure the safety of everyone around that machine. That message has been coming loud and clear out of Edmonton each fall for five years. It should have reached Ontario by now.

Keith Norbury

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