Overhead Crane Accident Action Stations

In the event of an overhead crane accident, a well-rehearsed procedure should be put into operation, says Tad Dunville, director of corporate development at Ace World Companies.

Before getting into what one should do in the important minutes, hours, days and weeks after a crane accident, let’s look briefly at the causes of such catastrophes, first, to outline how easy it is for things to go wrong and, second, to remind readers of the checklist in an effort to keep this blog redundant for as many people as possible.

The vast majority of accidents are down to operator or human error. This can be a result of poor training, miscalculations, or a lack of care and attention, for example. The guy or gal at the controls might not always be exclusively at fault; company culture might be to blame or a supervisor could be putting too much emphasis on speed of production. I’ve blogged before about the naive assumption that just because an operator can safely use one crane, he or she can operate another—a mindset that has caused many an accident in the past.

Improper repairs (which can generally be attributed to bad labor, tools or parts), wear and tear (bridge wheel flanges and bearings, failed wire ropes, chains and hoist brakes are up there with the most problematic components), and manufacturer defects are other frequently encountered causes for crane accidents.

It is thusly clear how complicated it can be to identify cause and establish blame.

Prepare for the worst

Don’t wait for an accident to happen before planning what to do in its aftermath. A procedure should be in place and understood by key personnel, which is initiated as soon as an accident happens. These action plans will vary depending on the size of company, type of facility and nature of the work that takes place there.

A single, low capacity crane might be in operation in a small workshop at a family business where only three people work; while elsewhere, hundreds of employees might work in a three-shift pattern across a sprawling site where a number of high capacity, high duty cycle cranes span multiple production lines. The principles of accident response are the same, however.

It’s a good idea to engage lawyers and insurance companies in dialog when putting an accident plan together. They’ll have their own requirements to add to those of safety professionals and other personnel where the crane is in use. The complete documentation will include requirements for cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) training; installation and test of fire equipment; health and safety regulations; and list designated staff. It might only be possible for certain people to understand the plan fully but, even if that is the case, a shorter, bullet-point procedure should be shared with employees at initiation and revisited at regular refresher training.

At the earliest sign of an accident this well-rehearsed procedure should swing into operation. The first person to see or hear it should know what to do and who to inform. Assessing casualties, alerting emergency services, turning off power, halting production, stabilizing the site and preventing further incident as a result of damage or debris, will all be high on the list of priorities.

Also near the top should be coordinating witness statements. Personnel should understand that in the wake of an accident, a named member of staff (probably the safety supervisor) would take charge. It will be their responsibility to ensure nobody leaves the scene or disappears into neighboring offices to compare notes with co-workers to “get their story straight”.

Everyone’s account is important, whether they saw the whole accident unfold, were operating the crane, or heard the crash of the load hitting the ground from next-door. The statements should be signed, dated, gathered and reviewed. Consistencies and discrepancies need to be found and follow-up interviews conducted.

Gather evidence

It’s important not to unnecessarily move anything. This isn’t the time to start sweeping up (or under the carpet) and preparing for a return to production. The site needs to be painstakingly photographed, captured on film and documented. Consider that legal professionals who might cover the case in future weeks and months might know nothing about cranes. They are unlikely to be able to base their findings on application knowledge.

If in doubt, take another photo and film from another angle. If an EOT crane has dropped something, take pictures of the crane itself, rigging, load, radio control, pendant, machine it struck, the floor where it dropped, hook, wire rope, and so on. No amount of photos is too many; there can’t be too great a number of memory sticks full of videos. Remember, it’s not advisable to leave anything to witness statements or interpretation alone. Eye witnesses are notoriously unreliable.

Don’t scoff at the idea of putting the day’s newspaper in shots, showing the date and a news headline to prove the scene hasn’t been reconstructed. Something might not stand up in court if there’s no proof the photographic evidence is from the time and place suggested. It sounds old fashioned, but what better way is there?

Care needs to be taken throughout this process, however. If the site isn’t safe, use a zoom lens. Don’t climb on fallen loads or equipment and don’t access property or scale heights that one wouldn’t have done so under normal circumstances. Just because an accident has just happened, it doesn’t mean another one can’t quickly follow. If in doubt, call in the manufacturer of the crane to ask them what might be safe or otherwise based on the details of the accident.

Leave nothing to chance

Still it isn’t time to start clearing up. Ask yourself if consultants, insurance representatives, lawyers, authorities or anyone else needs to carry out their own site inspections and gather independent evidence. In many cases, these parties have been able to advise on what the crane owner might not have considered or photographed themselves. Can something be safely accessed or uncovered that might prove where the fault started?

If serious injury or fatality has occurred, it goes without saying that the crane owner and management at the facility need to present information and share details as soon as possible with legal representatives.

If there has been no loss of life or limb, but product or property has been damaged, one might want to seek compensation from anyone who caused these damages. If that is the case, get third-party engineers to evaluate the situation. However, guard against involving third parties who are profit motivated (such as a competitor to the manufacturer of the crane involved), as they will find it impossible to remain impartial. Firms that only provide engineering, consulting, or investigation are a useful source here.

I hope this guidance doesn’t need to be applied in reality but I fear it will somewhere soon. I’ll leave you with two anecdotes that suggest why:

First, I saw comments in an email (in writing, therefore) not that long ago, in which a maintenance supervisor bragged that his facility broke federal law every day in order to increase production. Were an injury to occur, he would likely lose his job and perhaps be held criminally negligent as this is a wanton disregard for human life.

Second, I once found out I was twice as expensive as a fly-by-night competitor. Months later, the customer I lost out to called me back to remedy a situation caused by a repair he had made with bailing wire and bent nails.

Be as safe as you can be and, if the worst should happen, be prepared.

Tad Dunville
Director of Corporate Development, Ace World Companies
Membership Committee Chairman and Board of Directors, Crane Certification Association of America

Close Comments