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10 years and no older

Leigh W Sparrow, Publisher
Leigh W Sparrow, Publisher

May 1, 2011 - Over the years there has been much discussion regarding when a crane, or perhaps more critically an aerial lift, becomes too old for everyday use.

Most recently this has become a significant issue in the UK and New York following a number of fatal tower crane accidents involving civilians. Last year the UK HSE also released a bulletin regarding mobile cranes after a three old All Terrain crane failed due to work related fatigue. While no specific age related legislation has come into force as a result of these renewed concerns several UK based international contractors have simply banned any cranes over 10 years old from their job sites. In at least one case this has resulted in a safer, more efficient, solution being bypassed for younger less suitable equipment.

A number of countries have had, or still have, age related rules for aerial lifts or cranes, two Western countries that immediately spring to mind are Australia and Finland. Simplistically put the rules require 10 year old machines to be pulled aside and given a major structural and componentry inspection, with any worn components replaced, the unit has to then be certified as safe - usually by a third party.

The severity of the inspection which can result in a complete strip down and rebuild has caused many companies to sell their equipment before it reaches this point, usually to buyers outside of the country. You could of course argue that there is a moral case to answer here in the passing of potentially 'less safe' machines on to a market where standards are less strict. However a) There is nothing at all to say that the machine is any more dangerous than a new model and  b) The passing of older equipment/products on from markets that demand and and afford the very latest technology, to ones that do not is what makes up the second hand market for almost any product.

Back to the point – Is the 10 year major inspection policy not a good idea that Europe and North America should adopt?

The concept was first put forward and discussed by the International Powered Access Federation (IPAF) almost 15 years ago, but was then seen as a ploy by manufacturers to sell more new equipment. The subject has though reared its head again among manufacturers and some rental companies. The crane industry – as far as we know  - is not currently looking at such a proposal.

If you get past any initial conclusions you may jump to or prejudices you may have, the idea has a great deal of merit.

1.    1. At 10 years a crane or lift is normally written-off even though it may still have a god five to 10 years of good economic life remaining. In spite of this there is a trend among contractors to  ‘take the law into their own hands’ and ban such machines from their job sites, even though a well maintained 10 year old can be safer and perform better than a badly maintained six year old one. Surely it is better to come up with an inspection/semi-rebuild programme that puts an end to such off-the-cuff rulings?

2.    2. A 10 year major inspection will make life harder for the ‘cowboy’ rental companies or contractors that buy old machines cheaply and use them to cut costs and corners, creating a negative effect at the bottom of the market -pulling down rental rates. While 'rent-a-wreck' might have a place in in the car hire business – it should have no place in the crane or aerial lift market. Such companies would be obliged to pay more for certified machines or if they buy ones approaching the cut-off date will have to have then rebuilt. This is surely good for those rental companies that preach quality and safety.

3.    3. With many owners preferring to sell older machines on before they face the 10 year inspection process, a more dynamic used equipment market will be created, with a stream of good quality machines being made available to markets that  cannot yet afford or justify newer equipment, while keeping western fleets younger and providing contractors with more recent technology.

4.    4. One fear is of course that this is just another cost that will put pressure on rental margins. However a 10 year life before a major inspection/rebuild, will force companies to look at this period as a definitive economic life and reflect it in their rates. At the same time the raising of the bar at the very bottom of the market will surely roll upwards and positively impact the top of the market? In some countries where the competition is contractors running 20 or even 30 year old cranes – more of them will choose to turn towards renting, rather than owning, which can only help the rental sector as a whole.

5.    5. Finally a full and detailed and tough 10 year mandatory inspection of aerial lifts, mobile cranes and tower crane components, possibly followed my similar tests every five years thereafter, might just pick up some major structural or other issues and help improve safety.

While such a programme is not a panacea and can in no way replace, or have any influence on, daily, weekly or annual inspections, the fact is that it will make the junk end of the market safer – or at least better regulate it. Which will help the industry as a whole and set minimum standards that the contractors will follow.

If we look at some of the fatal tower crane accidents that caused the knee-Jerk 10 year ruling that some contractors are now implementing - in the absence of anything similar from the industry itself. A ‘10 year plus every five thereafter’ regime may well have completely prevented at least two of them, saving at least four lives in those cases alone.

It should be pointed out at this stage that vast majority of accidents with both cranes and aerial lifts are not caused by equipment failure no matter how old the machines are. Operator/erector error still represents over 90 percent of all accidents and this still needs more attention in terms of training. (This is also the case with the aviation industry - yet it has a strict regime of major inspections/rebuilds for older aircraft.)

However a solid 10 year rule could help stimulate the market and head ofF a creeping informal range of rulings from end users.

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