OSHA’s new rule serves as a reminder of the importance of safe crane operation for all precast employers and employees.
By Mindi Zissman
Editor’s Note: This article is intended to serve as a reference guide for entry-level production workers.
A lot of emphasis and attention has been given to crane operators over the past decade as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has worked with industry experts, including the National Precast Concrete Association, to develop a new rule for operator certification. Now in effect, the OSHA rule has expanded its crane operation policy to clarify an employer’s duty to ensure worker safety when operating a crane. The final rule required crane operators to be certified or licensed in crane operation as of December 2018 and evaluated by their employer on operator skill with proper documentation as of April 2019.
The rule applies when precast concrete products are delivered to a job site and a crane is used to arrange the product in a particular sequence for hoisting or to set the product in an excavated area. It does not apply when construction materials are delivered to a job site and a crane is used to set them on non-excavated ground in no particular order.
Authored to improve safety across the construction industry – both in the field and on job sites – OSHA’s new rule has been well received by precast employers and workers alike in their desire to eliminate potential accidents and fatalities.
“Whether it’s equipment damage, injury or potential fatalities, you hear about things falling from cranes or cranes collapsing,” said Joe Toth, senior safety consultant at Colorado Crane Operator School and MSC Safety Solutions, a crane operation training and consulting company. “They’re completely avoidable incidents.”
The best way to minimize risk is to institute proven safety initiatives across the precast plant and job site. The following are 10 best practices for lifting concrete safely:
1. Label everything. Labeling each piece of heavy concrete with its weight and every lifting component with its load capacity ensures everyone on site takes necessary precautions, from the crane operator to the site supervisor.
“The biggest misconception is the strength of the sling that operators use to hoist the materials onto the job site,” Toth said. “If you know the height and weight of the piece, you can determine if you have sufficient capacity to pick it up.”
2. Use a barrier. Using a physical barrier to act as a buffer between the concrete product edges and lifting equipment will help prevent damage to the concrete.
“We use firehoses that are no longer in service to protect our rigging and the product itself,” said Adam Vaughn, fleet manager at Vaughn Concrete Products. “Using hose pieces at the edges of the products creates a buffer between the products and the rigging.”
Vaughn originally purchased a number of firehoses from an auction. When those ran out, he reached out to local fire departments, making a donation in exchange for retired hoses.
3. Use taglines. Tying a piece of non-conductive rope to two of the lifting locations on the same side of the product during lifting allows workers to apply pressure to each of those lines individually and guide the piece of concrete safely while in the air.
“Having taglines on the same side allows everyone to see and know what’s going on and eliminates workers involved in a tug of war, which is what happens when you tie off on opposing sides,” Vaughn said. “Which side should you pick? Whichever is the safest for access on the site.”
4. Implement a shadow program. Consider creating an employee shadow program that pairs new hires with an experienced employee. This gives the new employee a chance to observe the lifting process, see the proper safety procedures in action and gain a greater understanding of the site’s unique process and work flow.
“Have a debriefing after each product delivery,” Vaughn said. “Ask them, ‘Do you have any questions? What came to your mind that you didn’t understand?’”
5. Train effectively. There’s almost always a right and wrong way to perform each task in the plant and on the job site. Employees should be trained to recognize the wrong procedures and shortcuts and be able to both identify and follow the right procedures as part of a company’s formal training program. Best practice calls for training when onboarding new hires and at least annually thereafter. It’s also a good idea to include refreshers on lifting safety during monthly safety meetings and morning toolbox talks.
“A lot of workers are afraid to say, ‘I’m not properly trained for this,’” Toth said. “Train workers to speak up when they don’t know how to perform a task or operate a certain piece of equipment.”
6. Consider rigging orientation. Rigging orientation is a specific type of training and a critical exercise for crane operators. From lifting a piece with four sides to removing the sling from its hook, rigging orientation will zero in on the specifics of each crane-related task, presenting specialized real-world exercises and instruction. Many rigging companies offer free rigger and lifting training courses, too. Consult your supplier and see if this free service is available to you.
7. Stay on top of manufacturer-required maintenance. The measurement for determining construction vehicle maintenance schedules is by hours of use, not per mile driven. Maintenance is typically required every 400 hours of use for most diesel machines, whether a generator, semi-truck, delivery van or crane. Change filters and oil and inspect coolant levels at the frequency outlined by the owner’s manuals. Daily or weekly spot checks are also a good idea between regularly scheduled preventative maintenance. Don’t forget to service hooks, latches and hoisting cables as well. Manufacturers will have different inspection intervals for each product.
8. Perform pre-shift inspections. The crane operator or site supervisor responsible for the daily actions of the crane should walk around the vehicle each morning to make sure everything is as it should be before operating it.
“Many don’t take the time to make sure the crane is level,” Toth said. “If it’s not level, then the crane will likely not be able to handle the listed capacities.”
9. Conduct a job safety/hazard analysis. Analyze each role and crew member’s responsibility at the plant and on the job site. Break down the tasks into steps to help determine the associated hazards for each task and each crew member. Similarly, know the limitations of the equipment in operation, including manufacturer-listed measurements. Everyone who uses each piece of equipment – from hooks to slings to cranes – should know the equipment’s strict limitations.
10. Think outside the box. Encourage crew members to come up with innovative ideas for establishing safe lifting best practices of their own. For example, Vaughn Concrete Products discovered its crew members had difficulty aligning precast products during setting at a job site without exposing them to getting fingers pinched or falling off ladders, etc. As a result, poorly aligned precast sections sometimes showed leaking joints or lack of sealant adhesion. The solution was to fabricate a small steel channel with an upper edge flared outward that was mounted 6 to 8 inches above the joint to the outside or inside of the precast product. Once the product is lowered into the guide channels, its position is properly maintained until the section is set. The ingenuity improved the product’s watertight joints, saved time during placement and improved the company’s reputation.
The devil is in the details
Every precast concrete structure is different; therefore, when it comes to lifting, each task and maneuver will have its own capacities and hazards. Paying attention to these details will ultimately determine the success of each concrete lift.
“I always inform everyone on site that they have the power to stop a lift if they see something problematic – maybe the crane operator didn’t notice a hook out of place or an outrigger shift,” Vaughn said. “If anyone sees something questionable, let the operator know. A few seconds delay could stop a potentially dangerous situation.”
Mindi Zissman is a Chicago, Ill.-based freelance writer who has covered the AEC industry, commercial liability and health care for more than 15 years.