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Cranes, lifts and power lines: a safety oriented approach

by Colleen Suo

Steve Sprague, RCA, CTSP, featured speaker at the recent TCIA Expo in Baltimore, MD, spoke on safety procedures and practices when using cranes and lifts in close proximity to power lines. During his introduction, Sprague emphasized that he was presenting his interpretation of the current regulatory environment, which in turn dictated how his tree care company operated cranes around power lines. He said it is ultimately up to the individual business owner to know the regulations, interpret them and incorporate a safety plan with procedures that best suit the level of hazards they encounter at any given jobsite.

Sprague said at Carroll Tree Service, where he is employed, he’s taken that interpretation and turned it into their company’s best practices. “I reviewed the regulatory environment and gained an understanding, interpreted what those regulations mean for us and then I developed policies and procedures to indicate to any third party investigator that we’re in compliance with those regulations. We try to make sure that any preventable accident is in fact prevented.”

He continued by stating that during the last two decades, more and more tree care professionals have been incorporating cranes and/or lifts into their operations — whether it be for tree maintenance or removal work and a large number of businesses now keep crane operators in-house.

In most cases, when you set a crane at a jobsite, a power line is nearby. This is especially true in residential or suburban areas. So if, as a business owner, you are considering adding a crane to your fleet, you need to “ensure that somebody has an understanding of the regulatory environment and that they are they doing things within your organization to make sure you comply.”

Know the rules

The regulatory guidance that affects the tree care industry is OSHA’s rule on cranes and derricks (26CFR1926.1400 — Cranes and Derricks in Construction) and it provides detailed and pertinent guidelines on how to operate a crane in close proximity to power lines. However, the exclusions listed in the opening paragraphs include tree trimming and removal work — so technically, the tree care industry is not covered by those federal regulations. Since in many cases, individual states adopt the federal regulations as their state guidelines, the tree professional cannot fall back on state regulations to guide them. So what’s a business engaged in removal or tree care to do? We all know that the lack of regulatory guidance does not negate the responsibility of an owner or operator if a third party investigator should show up due to an accident, incident or worse.

Sprague explained that his understanding of that situation is “since those things don’t provide me any guidance I fall back to the next level that does provide guidance and that would be OSHA.” Company or safety compliance officers need to glean information from 26CFR1926.1400 on how to behave and conduct a business in accordance with those guidelines in order to be ready to provide any third party investigator a company’s “good faith attempt to abide by the regulations to keep employees safe.”

What that “good faith attempt” entails is also up for interpretation to the individual investigator, so the more information and documentation (this is vital) a company has on training procedures, the better off they are regarding liability and employee safety.

He said Carroll Tree Service requires that their all their crane operations employees (not just the crane operator) have electrical hazard awareness training, that they understand aerial rescue standards (and be able to perform them), and to know CPR and first aid. They also need to be proficient in communications — “not just the standard communications that take place on a regular job site where the crew is just going to drop a tree or a piece of one — we’re talking communications as related to crane work.”

If the crew is using voice communications, everyone needs to understand what the commands are and how they are to be employed. If workers use hand signals, everyone needs to know them. Employees need to be trained on how to use them properly. Sprague also emphasized the need to have a designated trainer and to document the training. They also require proficiency in specialized climbing and ground operations.

Evaluate your employees

An owner or supervisor needs to be able to evaluate the employees and to realize that even though they may all be good workers, they’re not all qualified to work on a crane operation site, “especially on a crane site where work is being done in proximity to power lines.”

Sprague said crane operators need to understand and evaluate all the variables that go into a complex crane worksite. They need to be able to recognize the potential hazards and risk factors quickly and take responsibility for either stopping the work or mitigating the hazard immediately.

Just because someone has crane experience in a standard construction setting, does not automatically qualify him or her for work on a complex worksite with elevated hazards. A smart approach to crane operations of any kind is to require certain qualifications for your operators. The size of a company and how often elevated hazards are encountered, will determine the qualifications, but Sprague noted that for his company, “(a worker) has to be able to do pretty much everything else on the crew first.” That includes operating all other equipment and being part of complex operations where clear communication with other members was essential. They are also required to have been a supervisor or foreman (having been responsible for other peoples safety), and have a designation (Carroll Tree Service designation) as a master rigger and understand how to do a continual assessment of a complex worksite.

Minimal clearance and site evaluation

Once again, interpretation is the key factor to compliance to the minimal clearance regulation. For a crane operator, if any portion of a crane boom or load line or anything attached to the load can come within x-number of feet of the (power) lines, then the operator is breaking the minimal clearance. Sprague explained, that in the construction industry, according to OSHA regs, if the power line is 50kv or more, the minimum clearance is 20-feet and if the voltage is 50kv or less the distance reduces to a 10-foot clearance.

As stated earlier, the more documentation a company has on total operations and safety within everyday operations, the better off they are in the event of an investigation. Does a job site evaluator go in prior to making a bid or giving an estimate? How complex is the work going to be? How many lifts will it take to complete the job? What’s the chance the load will become dynamic enough to shift and break through that established clearance?

Determine where site lines need to be and how to designate them so all the ground personnel and the crane operator have a clear visual cue as to where the minimal clearance boundary is. Does the equipment have range or proximity warning alarms or use a range control limiter? If there is a need for a dedicated spotter for the job, be sure that is factored into the job quote. Bare in mind, this is a worker performing an essentially non-productive activity (although it will be an important one).

For Sprague’s crews, anyone on the crane crew has stop-work authority. “They operate on a consensus paradigm — if the climber and the operator don’t agree on what the next activity is and how to perform it, they are at a stand-still. Neither one of those guys can pull a ‘trump card’ and say we’re doing it my way. They try to work it out, if they can’t work it out, they have to call the operations supervisor or safety director and the three of them will have to take a look over the plans and work it out together,” he explained.

End of job follow up

Get an understanding from the key players as to how things went and how (if at all) they should change the next time. Could anything have been done differently? Could the company have made more money? Could you have been more efficient? How could it have been done more safely? Did you have everything you needed? Was the job planned correctly? Was anything missed in the planning stage? Is there something that can be integrated into a similar project next time? These reviews will be more complicated if there’s a near miss or an incident.

Sprague recommended, “If you have a near miss or an incident, document your follow up with the crew. What happened? What led to this problem in question? How can we prevent it in the future? Then everybody (on the crew) gains an understanding of the event as a smaller group. Then at the next safety meeting for all of the company guys, those workers who now have a new understanding of how things went, are able to share their experiences with everyone and it’s documented and filed in the safety folder.”

Sprague concluded by saying that documenting safety awareness and personnel training can not be stressed enough because if in a few years down the road, “You had three other near misses that you never documented and then you have a serious accident or fatality and you have a third party investigator come in and start interviewing people, asking how many times has this happened” you need to have documentation. It’s not going to be good enough to say, “Well, we train our guys” or “We do it right.” The company will have to provide documentation that it has made a good faith effort to prevent injury and to protect the safety of its employees.



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