Mobile crane operators perform a vital, visible role

June 6, 2013 By    

May 26 marked the three-year anniversary of a tragedy that shook the propane industry, as two Ferrellgas employees in a crane truck were electrocuted when the boom of their crane contacted a 7,200-volt power line.

The employees were setting propane tanks and taking inventory in an Auburn, Wash., tank storage yard when the incident occurred, according to an Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) report.

In a new mobile crane safety video prepared by the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC), Ferrellgas’ Derrick Grice calls it the “worst incident in a long time.”

Overhead power lines remain one of the biggest dangers for mobile crane operators. The topic receives significant attention in the safety video, which reminds operators to steer their equipment clear of power lines. Operators also are given procedures to follow if contact is made with power lines.

“Trees are one thing, bushes are one thing, but overhead power lines are not forgiving. That’s an end-all right there,” says Donald Hornor, field operations manager at Virginia-based Revere Gas. “For our industry, as far as I’m concerned, overhead power lines are the big issue. It’s dominoes from there.”

Face of the industry

Like bobtail drivers, mobile crane operators are the face of the propane industry. Much of their work is done at the customer’s location, as they use truck-mounted cranes to install tanks or cylinders above or below ground. They must represent the industry in a positive way while ensuring the work is done safely.

“Cranes are vital. They’re the heartbeat of our operations for doing installs,” says Randy Halstead, operations manager at Michigan-based Tri-County Propane.

Articulating (knuckle boom) and telescoping boom cranes are the two most common types used in the propane industry. There are varying styles and sizes of cranes; the PERC video stresses the importance of knowing the crane’s lifting capacity and interpreting a load chart.

The video also reviews components of crane trucks, such as the chassis and boom, the crane’s overload protection device and the manual or remote control functions of a crane. Outriggers are used to stabilize the truck. Rigging equipment is composed of slings, chains, hooks and straps.

“They make our job easier, and they’ve come a long way,” Hornor says.

Hornor recalls a “monstrosity of a contraption” used to set tanks in the days before cranes, with a trailer in tow.

“Now, instead of taking two pieces of machinery in a yard, one truck is in and out. It’s neat and simple,” he says. “There was a whole lot of dragging back then, a whole lot of brute strength.”

Adds Dan Skalsky, energy manager at CHS Propane in Kalispell, Mont., “We used to set them with hand-winch trailers. You had to park exactly where you wanted the tank to sit. You couldn’t move it around very easily. With cranes, you can move them just a minute amount if you want. It really takes a lot of work out of it.”

Even with the added technology on today’s cranes, operators must be aware of their surroundings and follow all safety procedures, Skalsky says.

“The terrain is the big thing for us. We’re pretty mountainous,” he adds. “You want to be very careful that your crane is as level as possible.”

Knowing the crane’s capabilities and how it will react once in operation is extremely important, Halstead says. Other concerns he has for operators: not inspecting the equipment or cable for damage, becoming complacent and not taking the time to perform aerial preflight.

“Taking shortcuts gets most of us,” he says. “When there is trouble, 99 percent of the time a shortcut was taken.”

Halstead believes that marketers, as a general rule, are practicing safe crane operations. He reminds them to complete their annual crane certifications on the equipment.

Crane operators should never feel like they have mastered the job “because every situation creates new hazards,” Hornor says. “It’s not a cookie-cutter thing. Every job is its own unique monster. You’ve got to be the best ringmaster at each one. That’s the nature of our beast. Nothing’s the same. No two jobs are identical.”

Training tools

Released last year, PERC’s mobile crane safety program provides propane marketers with the tools needed to train their employees on safe and effective crane operations while also complying with requirements established by OSHA’s general industry standard, which covers all crane operations in the propane industry.

This is in contrast to OSHA’s new final rule in 2010 pertaining to standards on cranes and derricks in construction. The rule requires crane operators in construction applications, including those from the propane industry, to have third-party certification by an accredited source, as well as operator training.

Stuart Flatow, vice president of safety and training for PERC, says the industry did not have a comprehensive crane training program and the council wanted to fill that void. He credits the leadership of Ferrellgas’ Randy Warner, chairman of PERC’s safety and training working group, as well as all industry volunteers, on the project.

“Cranes are big, expensive, heavy pieces of equipment and they’re very complex,” Flatow says. “If you’re not careful, you can damage property or hurt yourself dramatically. It’s a big investment for the industry, and people who operate cranes should know how to do it safely.”

PERC takes a multimedia approach to the employee training program, with a 75-minute video and accompanying training manual, instructor guide and safety talk handouts. The program is available on the Propane MaRC (www.propanemarc.com) for $9; about 2,000 copies have been distributed since its release, Flatow says.

Exemption sought

OSHA’s final rule on cranes and derricks in construction became effective in November 2010 – the result of an advisory committee that worked to revise the standards. The deadline to comply was Nov. 10, 2014, but OSHA announced in May its intentions to push the compliance date back until 2017.

“It’s a huge thing for OSHA right now because cranes are more prevalent in everyday operation – not just for us but in a lot of industries,” Hornor says.

The propane industry is impacted by this rule; employees working at a construction site and operating a crane with a lifting capacity of more than 2,000 pounds must have third-party certification. Whether it will remain covered at the compliance date is still unknown, as the National Propane Gas Association (NPGA) is working with OSHA to ease burdens on the industry.

“It’s just the degree, severity and complexity of training for the current requirements under OSHA are really geared toward someone where this is their full-time job, operating larger cranes in construction applications, as opposed to crane operators in our industry who perform a multitude of tasks,” says Michael Caldarera, vice president of regulatory and technical services for NPGA.

Cost and time are the largest detriments to the industry. According to Caldarera, companies will pay about $1,300 per employee, including exam costs and lost time at work for training. NPGA estimates a $20 million total impact to the propane industry.

There is still hope for relief, however. NPGA feels the propane industry should fall under a material delivery exclusion in the rule: Materials are removed from the truck crane to the ground and are not for subsequent lifting. The exclusion applies only to an articulating truck crane and would cover propane containers up to and including 2,000 gallons water capacity. OSHA has yet to respond to NPGA’s request.

Photo courtesy of the Propane Education & Research Council

Brian Richesson

About the Author:

Brian Richesson is the editor in chief of LP Gas Magazine. Contact him at brichesson@northcoastmedia.net or 216-706-3748.

1 Comment on "Mobile crane operators perform a vital, visible role"

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  1. I’m so glad that people saw the need for a proper training course, so they created one in crane safety. By educating the workforce, accidents like the electrocution of the two workers can now be avoided. I cannot stress the importance of a properly trained crew who know how to work this complex equipment.