February 6, 2011 - Who would have thought over a century ago that commercial flying would become the safest form of travel by a wide margin? Aviation’s impressive safety record has not come about by accident or by manufacturers making their aircraft idiot proof.
It has arisen from two principal factors: the thorough training and licensing of pilots and the systematic reporting and logging of near misses - and accidents of course – with action taken to learn from such events.
In spite of the clear and undisputed benefits provided by such a reporting procedure and attitude there has been little attempt to adopt it for lifting equipment. Major contractors, for all their talk of ‘benchmarking’ and adopting best practice, are still guilty of hushing up and suppressing near misses and even details of accidents. One company was recently fined for having a crane operator fired as a troublemaker after he raised concerns over a lift.
In the past three years there have been at least four incidents involving crawler cranes working on wind farms, three of which were narrow-track models. In all but one case – a near miss, reported recently in our news section – the facts were hushed up and efforts made to prevent any information getting out. This was only possible because none of the accidents involved serious injuries or fatalities.
Now before we totally condemn those involved – one in the UK, one in Sweden and one in the USA – there are other influences at work in addition to any concerns over reputation. There’s often a tussle over whom to blame with insurance companies often contributing to the ‘say nothing’ policy, or the Health and Safety authorities looking to see if there is any opportunity to blame and prosecute.
The result of this approach ends with details being hushed-up, while the investigation into what happened often fails to really get to the bottom of the incident. Most importantly, very valuable lessons that could help others are not shared. In the UK where the HSE can take three years or more to decide if they will prosecute (surely this should be outlawed under Human Rights legislation?) valuable information is often supressed.
Perhaps the industry associations such as ESTA, IPAF, the SC&RA, and other national organisations should make the systematic logging of near misses and accidents a priority. Safety regulators should consider giving immunity to companies that report near misses and use regular reporting and a healthy open attitude to such policies by its staff as mitigating factors if and when they do have an accident.
Associations could follow the lead set recently by the Crane Industry Council of Australia (CICA), which has launched a new voluntary accident-reporting scheme. Australia is also good at rapidly circulating accident information, even when a fatality is involved. The unions and Worksafe cooperate in getting the information out to others. A good case in point is a ground-related accident at a Holcim cement plant in Western Australia on December 8th. Within four weeks a full report with excellent photographs was on the desks of contractors, rental companies and other interested parties.
There are still far too many avoidable accidents, particularly with cranes. Instead of constant attempts to make equipment idiot proof, regulatory authorities ought to look to the aviation industry and focus on the sharing of information and training.
Unions could also play a part and take some responsibility instead of acting like bystanders and playing politics or being obstructive. Major contractors should drop their box-ticking methods and move to a more open attitude when mistakes occur. Trade bodies and associations can be instrumental in bringing these divergent parties together into a single force to reduce accidents.
We appear to be sliding into an era where truth and facts are seen as disruptive irritations, not only by outspoken ‘populist’ politicians, but increasingly of large companies and industry associations.
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