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March 19, 2008

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Working at height improvements

Fatalities involving the collapse of tower cranes have highlighted serious gaps in their safe erection, management, examination, and maybe even design. Key stakeholders from across the industry have now joined forces to try to bring about significant improvements, as Shelley Atkinson-Frost explains.

“Tower cranes are the most visible pieces of plant on a construction site and are also one of the most potentially dangerous.”

When you consider that there are about 1000 tower cranes in operation across the UK at any one time, the above remark by John Spanswick, chair of the Strategic Forum for Construction’s Tower Crane Group, resonates that much greater. Indeed, the health and safety risks associated with tower cranes have been brought to the public’s attention by high-profile fatal incidents and dangerous occurrences on several sites, including Canary Wharf, Worthing, Battersea and Liverpool (see panel opposite).

The Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 (LOLER) set out the legal minimum requirements for the safe operation of tower cranes on construction sites and it is up to industry to comply with these Regulations. However, if we are to see improvements in crane safety, a strategic approach is required in order to deliver sustained high standards and greater consistency on safety issues for all those involved in the tower-crane sector.

Statistically, there has not been an increase in the number of fatalities involving tower cranes, but the fact there have been four fatal incidents resulting in eight fatalities over the last seven years is still a cause for concern. Major incidents (cases which result in injury) and dangerous occurrences (where no injuries result) also happen.

Typical causes of such incidents include:

– mechanical failure, e.g. brake failure, lifting ram failure;

– a load striking a worker, or dropped load;

– crane overturn;

– sling failure; and

– jib collapse.

Analysis of dangerous occurrences is vital because these data offer a glimpse into what might have been, and it is usually only through luck that more serious consequences are avoided.

There is a number of clients and contractors who produce specific policies on the conditions for supply, erection, dismantling, operation and maintenance of tower cranes, with prescriptive measures for the safe management of these processes. But, while there is plenty of good guidance available to, and being practised by, the industry, it is also evident that such good practice is not prevalent across the whole sector, and there is need for change on several fronts.

Now, in recognition of the problem, an industry group has been established, which reports to the Strategic Forum Health and Safety Task Group, comprising representatives from across the sector.

Aiming to improve the health and safety record of this sector of the industry, the Tower Crane Group’s members include: manufacturers, suppliers, contractors, tower-crane drivers, clients, insurance providers, and the public. Four areas, which are outlined in more detail below, are now being taken forward by working groups, each chaired by members of this group.

Site induction

There is a concern that operators and others involved in the erection and use of tower cranes are forced to attend lengthy, generic site inductions, which don’t focus on specific risks. This is neither effective use of time nor an effective approach for reducing risk.

Inductions should be restricted to site-specific risks and precautions, and last no longer than 20 to 30 minutes, which would fall in line with the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007, and with the policy of the Major Contractors’ Group (MCG). A standard approach will therefore be designed and implemented across the industry in order to prevent duplication from one site to the next.


The competency of operators and others involved in tower-crane activities is essential. There is, however, a lack of clarity between current programmes, such as Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) cards, Construction Plant Competence Scheme (CPCS) cards, and training programmes for slingers, erectors, and appointed persons. Ensuring people pass from the basic trainee operator level to the fully competent operator level is key to raising general competence standards.

It is also apparent that there has been a slow-down in mentoring and apprenticeship opportunities for new operators. Consequently, there is an opportunity for improvements to be made for those who have just finished a training scheme or apprenticeship, but lack experience.

Work is now underway to map current competency and training schemes aimed at those involved in planning, managing and operating tower-crane lifts. Such schemes will be judged against their relevancy to the task, and the value of approach. Possible opportunities for apprenticeship schemes will also be considered.

Work has already progressed on the launch of two new tower-crane courses. Run by the National Construction College (NCC), ‘Introduction to the thorough examination of tower cranes’ is a two-day course offering training to those managing the examination of tower cranes; and ‘Introduction to the management of tower cranes’ is a three-day course offering training for those selected to undertake the examination of tower cranes.

Maintenance and thorough examination

The legal requirement under LOLER for maintenance and thorough examination of cranes is well known and vital for safe operation, but experience has shown that the interpretation of the law is both patchy and inconsistent. This concern relates to the examination techniques and management of the inspection and maintenance process, in particular planned preventive maintenance.

It is apparent that different inspectors will examine different issues to varying degrees during general and detailed crane inspections. Sites have also adopted different practices and procedures in relation to daily, or other periodic inspections. This creates confusion in the industry on what is best practice and, in worst cases, means that inspection is not carried out on some key features.

The industry has therefore agreed to work alongside the Construction Plant Hire Association’s Tower Crane Interest Group and the Safety Assessment Federation (SAFed) to carry through the publication of best-practice guidance covering the maintenance and thorough examination of tower cranes. It will then be a case of promulgating this best practice across the industry to ensure that all those involved are aware of the standard that needs to be met to achieve a level of conformity.

Operator working conditions

Action is also being taken to raise standards of operator working conditions, in line with both legal compliance and industry standards. This also reflects the Strategic Forum’s broader ‘Respect for people’ agenda. Issues include:

– Conditions of work — operators often work long hours with few breaks, which is a hazard to both themselves and others. They can also be asked to work unsocial hours, including weekends. A code of practice will be drawn up covering, for example, hours of work, welfare standards, operator rotation, and integration of climbing time. The code of practice will at all times seek to reflect current best practice and European standards.

– Crane design — there have been many technological advances in this area, but these have not become standard. A few simple design features could significantly improve conditions for the operator, such as correct temperatures in the cabin and limited climbing distance. Ambient temperatures mean that the operator does not become stressed by the cabin being too hot or too cold. Limiting the distance an operator has to climb to 40 metres means that operators do not become too tired. These issues would also be included in the aforementioned code of practice.

– Health issues — the health of a safety-critical worker, such as a tower-crane driver, is vital to the health and safety of all those around the operations. For the most part, operating a tower crane is a sedentary job, and the average age of a tower crane driver is about 55 years. These factors may have a negative effect on the operator’s general health. Opportunities to raise awareness of health issues will therefore be assessed, with the aim of establishing a sector-wide approach.

– Working practices — some operators have described challenges in communicating health and safety issues on site. Operators should be able to make key safety decisions and carry out safety-critical tasks without undue pressure. To help in this area, the code of practice will incorporate guidance and best-practice examples on good working practices, and how to encourage worker engagement.

As well as specific areas of concern, two further cross-cutting themes have also been identified:

Sharing information on near-hits

Those within the industry have much to learn from one another, and agreement has been reached on the need to establish a single point of information for the industry on incidents and near hits, with some analysis to identify common causes or other trends. Such a mechanism will collate data on fatalities, major incidents, and near-hit incidents that could have resulted in major injury, as a means to distribute key learning outcomes to the rest of the industry.

The industry as a whole, including the tower-crane sector, suffers from significant under-reporting of health and safety incidents. Such an approach would therefore help provide a more accurate picture of the issues and enable, for example, better trend analysis. This would encourage the industry to respond proactively to common concerns and give more time to establish innovative long-term solutions.

Importantly, the system should be built on the principle of learning from experiences, and should not be used to blame others. Nor would the submission of information replace the legal reporting processes as required under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 (RIDDOR), as all data would be provided in confidence.

Communication to the public

There is also growing public awareness and concern about tower-crane safety. The Battersea Crane Disaster Action Group (BCDAG) considers public reassurance to be a necessity.

Although the public has both the right and opportunity to raise issues directly with site staff, people are often unaware of that opportunity, or reticent to voice concerns, unsure of the questions to raise, or likely response. In order to generate such a culture, it is necessary to devise a simple method of site-based communication, which:

– provides visible recognition of tower-crane activity on each site;

– enables members of the public to gain access to information quickly at a local level;

– provides confidence that tower-crane activities are well-managed;

– provides contact details for site personnel; and

– provides a route to further information on tower cranes.

Work is now underway to establish a ‘safely managed’ public poster. This will, for example, cover tower-crane activities on all sites registered with a widely recognised audit scheme.


This sector of the construction industry has a poor health and safety record and there are clearly improvements to be made. However, positive strides are being made by industry working together. This breaking down of commercial barriers to realise the single objective of saving lives is how improvements can be made in order to establish a sound health and safety culture across the sector.

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