Article Archive
Failure to Lift
Crane safety makes national headlines following accident at Houston refinery
Volume 23, No. 5

Accidents involving construction cranes are not usually identified in an industrial facility's emergency action plan as a specific hazard, said crane expert Matthew Burkart. Unfortunately, the risk is not usually addressed in the specific lift plan governing the crane's operation either.

?"I've lifted over chemical vessels, nuclear vessels and oil refineries," Burkart said. "The lift plan is intended to keep things from going wrong. The assumption is that if it does go wrong the emergency action plan for the entire site will take care of it."

Burkart's comments follow a July 20th accident at a Houston refinery in which a 30-story-tall crane capable of lifting one million pounds collapsed, killing four employees of the contractor hired for the specific lift.

The crane had been assembled to lift the top off a coker unit in order to replace the drum. However, the collapse occurred prior to that operation. An investigation is being conducted by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).

Two high profile construction crane collapses in New York City that involved fatalities earlier this year had focused attention on crane safety even before the Houston incident. In the week following the Houston collapse, fatality accidents involving cranes were reported in Smithville, TX, and Normal, IL.

Burkart is president of his own consulting firm, Aegis Corporation. He has been involved in construction litigation and has served as an expert witness for OSHA and many of the country's most well-known law firms. A widely published author, he also serves on American Society of Civil Engineers construction site safety committee as well as other committees governing the construction industry.

An industrial fire chief should take an early interest in any big lifts scheduled for his facility, Burkart said.

"The fire chief should ask a) what is the crane going to be picking up and b) what is it going to be swinging over?" he said. "These cranes have a long reach. If you're reaching over places where people are working and where there are hazardous materials, you need to give it a second thought."

Before a lift is made, a lift plan is formulated. It describes the machine, its capacity, what is being lifted, where it is going to be picked up from, where it is going to be set down, the radius the crane will operate within and a general description of the rigging and all the lifting devices that might be used.

Emergency response is not usually part of the lift plan, Burkart said. That is usually left to the facility's overall emergency action plan. However, that action plan rarely addresses the specifics of a crane accident.

"The crane is treated as just another piece of equipment," Burkart said.

Given the congested nature of most industrial facilities, avoiding all risk when developing a lift plan is not always practical, he said.

"You're going to have to identify the risks, probably pick the least hazardous and develop your own plan for dealing with that area of the plant if something does happen," Burkart said.

ANSI A10 standards govern construction and demolitions operations. Among Burkart's current projects is developing an A10 standard for emergency response plans. Current OSHA crane standards were promulgated in the agency's early days and have not changed since the 1970s.

?"The real difficulty when a catastrophe occurs on a construction site is coordinating and controlling what goes on," Burkart said. "You have to have someone in charge. But that person may not be in the construction business or know much about it."

Too often, the first step taken by emergency responders is to run off anyone with construction expertise, he said. Construction supervisors should integrate emergency personnel into the project at an earlier stage.

"Don't wait until you have an emergency," Burkart said. "Go down and grab hold of these rescue people whether they are industrial, municipal or volunteer firefighters. Get them out to the site to size up the hazard potential and confer on actions to reduce risks. Take the opportunity to stage emergency responders in the safe zone."



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