After NYC Collapse, Experts Say Cranes Aren’t Tested Enough

June 2, 2008

The towering cranes that build America’s skyscrapers are often not properly inspected for wear, fatigue and other potentially dangerous structural problems, several construction safety experts said following a deadly accident in New York.

Two construction workers died Friday when the huge cab of a 200-foot-high construction crane popped off its mast and plummeted onto a Manhattan street, sheering off part of an apartment building on the way down. Two crane accidents occured Saturday in Wyoming and Nevada; one person was killed and three others were injured.

Investigators probing the New York accident have focused on a possible defect in the turntable that connected the cab to the crane’s tower.

Acting Building Commissioner Robert LiMandri said a weld in the mechanism appeared to have failed. He said forensic experts were examining the break and tracking maintenance records on the turntable, which was part of an aging crane made by the defunct company Kodiak that had been in service since 1984.

Just why the weld came apart was unclear, but several safety inspectors who spoke with The Associated Press Saturday expressed dismay — but not surprise — that the problem hadn’t been uncovered during safety checks.

These experts, who included crane inspectors and engineers, said construction workers handling the giant machines often lack the expertise to spot structural problems and contractors routinely skip much-needed examinations for wear-and-tear.

Government inspectors are often unqualified to do the type of testing required to ensure structural integrity, they said.

“Their knowledge is fairly limited, along with their education,” said Greg Teslia, president of Crane Safety & Inspections Inc. in Coral Springs, Florida. “You cannot take a one-week course at some facility, and all of a sudden say that you are a crane inspector, and that’s what I think is happening.”

A thorough inspection of the crane’s turntable should have been routine, and included a check on any recent repair welds, Teslia said. City officials have been unable to say whether such an inspection was performed.

Jeff York, a crane safety consultant in Hayward, California, said there are many of things that can go wrong with a crane as it ages. Bolts can loosen and stretch. Cracks can develop. Most of these things can be detected, but he said those checks are sometimes performed poorly, or not done at all.

“There is no oversight for this type of work… There are people who are rubber stamping this stuff,” he said.

Construction companies, he said, should hire their own, independent experts to asses the crane’s structural integrity.

“A lot of this stuff is not visible to the untrained eye. Sometimes it’s not even visible to the trained eye. You need to know the history of the crane,” York said. “Typically, when you climb a crane and are checking a crane, you check every bolt on the crane. You check every last inch on the crane. It is an all-day job … sometimes a day and a half.”

In northeast Wyoming on Saturday, three people were injured when a large crane collapsed as it moved a pipe across a rail line at the Black Thunder coal mine near Wright.

And a worker was crushed to death by a crane at the construction site of the MGM Mirage’s CityCenter casino resort in Las Vegas, authorities said. The worker was oiling the crane when he apparently became caught between the its weight system and track. The crane didn’t fall, and no one else was injured.

There have been several other deadly crane accidents recently. A section of a crane collapsed in Miami in March, killing two workers and smashing a home. A construction worker died in Annapolis, Maryland in April after a section of a crane came lose as it was being dismantled. A crane collapse that crushed buildings and killed a man in Bellevue, Wa. in late 2006 prompted an overhaul of that state’s safety regulations.

The accident in New York came just 2 1/2 months after another crane collapsed in midtown Manhattan, killing seven people.

The city’s building commissioner convened an emergency meeting of some 80 area construction executives Saturday to talk about crane safety. The meeting was closed to the public, but LiMandri emerged afterward and pledged to get to the bottom of the accident.

LiMandri said authorities were checking whether there were been problems with the same crane turntable in the past.

A spokesman for the Manhattan District Attorney said a prosecutor has been assigned to the investigation, as is routine for all probes of fatal construction accidents.

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