Thursday, April 3, 2008

State lacks resources to certify crane operators

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The state requires a license for hairstylists to use scissors, but not for crane operators to use machinery weighing up to hundreds of tons.

In the past two weeks, two tower cranes collapsed and killed nine people in New York and Florida.

New York expanded its regulation of tower cranes Thursday, now requiring an inspector to be at each one as it is raised and lowered. The new rules were put in place in the wake of the March 15 collapse of a 19-story crane that demolished a townhouse and killed seven people in New York City.

On Tuesday, the top third of a tower crane collapsed in Miami, falling nearly 40 stories and killing two people.

Florida, like Maryland, does not require inspections of cranes or certification of operators.

The number of accidents involving construction cranes is relatively small compared to the number of construction projects using them throughout the country, said Gerry Fritz, spokesman for the national trade group Associated Builders and Contractors in Arlington, Va.

‘‘These were unfortunate incidents,” Fritz said.

Maryland Occupational Safety and Health inspectors do not go out of their way to inspect cranes, but they will if cranes are part of a work site receiving a random inspection, said Roger Campbell, assistant director of MOSH. In the past three years, MOSH has issued 44 citations involving cranes and related rigging during inspections.

MOSH has 36 inspectors for roughly 160,000 work sites in the state, Campbell said.

‘‘To inspect each and every tower crane when it goes up is going to take more resources than I have,” Campbell said.

The rate of failure of tower cranes is so low that inspectors put more emphasis on other potential workplace hazards, he said.

Construction sites with excavation work are more likely to be inspected than a site with a construction crane because more workplace deaths have occurred from trenches collapsing than cranes collapsing, Campbell said. MOSH carried out 1,377 inspections in 2007.

‘‘I don’t have a lot of medicine so I try to put it where the hurt is,” Campbell said.

Even with the two fatal crashes this month, deaths involving cranes are extremely rare nationally, Campbell said.

Of 5,703 work fatalities in 2006, the most recent year available, 28 involved a construction crane, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

MOSH inspectors could not recall a work-related death involving a crane in Maryland, Campbell said.

In 1993, a tower crane collapsed at a Baltimore construction project at the University of Maryland Hospital, but no one was injured, Campbell said.

The last recorded workplace injury in the state involving a crane occurred in 2003, he said.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is currently drafting a requirement that all crane operators be certified, Campbell said.