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Suspended risk

Leigh W Sparrow, Publisher
Leigh W Sparrow, Publisher

July 12, 2013 - The subject of lifting people with cranes, whether at work or for fun has been a slow burning hot topic for several years, and yet it is a subject which still deeply divides the industry.

Crane manufacturers and associations have generally been quite clear about this issue for some time. Put simply their collective view is that cranes are not designed for lifting people and so should never be used for fun rides, and only ever used to lift people when it is absolutely essential and no safer method or equipment is able to carry out the work.

Many safety authorities and industry associations - including FEM - have clearly stated this same policy over a number of years and yet…rental companies and even some manufacturers continue to lift people. Witness the ‘flights’ offered at Bauma this year, cranes are used to support zip wires and when we published an example of two people being lifted by a long reach loader in a large steel crate in the UK last month we were essentially told in no uncertain terms that did not have a clue what we were talking about.

The fact is that in Europe, as in most other parts of the developed world, standards and regulations governing aerial lifts are far tougher than those for cranes, precisely because they carry people. The safety margins are bigger and all aspects of the machine, must not only be fail safe, but should have redundant back ups.

When a crane is used to lift people it should be de-rated by at least 50 percent as a precaution, but the fact remains that a man basket still relies on a single hoist cable. The risk of a modern purpose-built hoist rope breaking - especially when lifting less than half its safe working load – is very remote, although it does still happen. And should it ever happen while lifting people they are almost doomed to serious injury or death. On top of that you have the old chestnut of the person in the basket being vulnerable to mistakes made by the operator, who rarely has a decent view of the platform he is manoeuvring.

So why take that risk when such a wide range of purpose-built equipment is freely available?

An outright ban by the FEM on lifting people for ‘leisure’  was rescinded last year after pressure from Dinner in the Sky, the company that lifts a dining party and staff to the top of a crane for a once in a lifetime experience. Sensible given that the ‘ban’ was being widely ignored. In some ways an activity such as this is more acceptable than lifting people at work. Those choosing to be lifted by a crane for fun do so in the knowledge that they are taking a risk, and as long as they are not going to fall on innocent people below, or fall into a location where the mangled mess could traumatise passers-by…. then fair enough. The crane operator would have to be a willing participant of course and then it’s just the poor emergency services who are involuntary participants.

Conversely those obliged to use a suspended man basket by an employer looking to save money by using the crane he has, rather than rent in a purpose- built platform, are exposed to the risk in a less enthusiastic way – although there are some who may relish the ride of course.

So what’s to be done?

The latest recommendations from FEM on the subject of lifting people for entertainment seem sensible, and if people wish to ride on cranes, whether it be for a bungee jump, dinner in the sky, a zip-wire, or even flights overhead, they should be allowed to do so as long as there is no one below and all the advice and risk assessments are carried out thoroughly. Having said this I do think that an industry trade show - where part of the point is to encourage best practice and promote safe working principles - is not the place to be selling rides to thrill seekers.

When it comes to working from crane suspended platforms however, I agree with the general recommendations that suspended platforms should only ever be used where no purpose-built alternative exists. This ‘rule’ should be more widely communicated and enforced, the European standard for crane suspended platforms EN14502 also appears weak in comparison to the high principles of EN280 – the standard that applies to aerial work platforms.

So I find myself taking a view that seems to be contrary to a good deal of industry thinking on this subject. Perhaps I am missing some important aspects of the debate?

One final thought for crane owners who do still lift people for entertainment purposes– there is a big difference between lifting a bungee jumper, or a group of dinner guests – and lifting members of the public in a large platform to give them a view. Both ‘users’ including the bungee jumper are of course assuming that the crane is 100 percent safe, but the thrill seeker knows there is a risk and almost seeks it out, the bungee cord carries its own risks. Members of the public on the other hand are not usually looking for such excitement and will assume that the lift is as safe as a hotel elevator – which it can never be.

If something goes seriously wrong with the latter there will be very little sympathy for the crane owner, and the potential repercussions are so serious that it is just not worth even considering it any more. But as always with this comment this is just my view.          

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