Tower cranes are essential to the construction, maintenance, and repair of skyscrapers and other tall buildings. But tower crane accident injuries and deaths happen too frequently. Until recently, most states did not have any laws regulating tower cranes and their operators, and even now, they are not consistently enforced.
Tower Crane Operations and Regulations
Operating a tower crane is among the most highly specialized skills in construction. Operators of tower cranes cannot see the loads they are picking up and must use a radio to communicate with workers on the ground to move its load to the correct position. One wrong move can have tragic consequences.
Tower crane operators must be certified, according to federal standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a federal agency of the United States Department of Labor. However, that requirement has only been in effect since December 2018. Since February 2019, employers are also required to evaluate their crane operators to ensure they are knowledgeable and skilled in the operation of the cranes to which they are assigned; and, that evaluation must be documented.
Those regulations took almost a decade to be put in place. OSHA originally published its Cranes and Derricks in Construction Standard in 2010, with a certification requirement to go into effect in 2014. However, industry stakeholders’ concerns delayed the requirements for over four years.
Deadly Tower Crane Accidents
Despite the certification regulations, not all tower crane companies and operators follow proper safety protocol, and tower cranes often cause significant injury or even death. For example:
In July, 2019, a Boston woman was critically injured when a crane lifting a pallet of materials dislodged a metal construction guardrail, which fell from the rooftop of a five-story building. The woman was walking her dog with her husband when the railing fell directly onto her head. City officials said the construction company was operating a dangerous work site and halted construction on all the company sites, pending safety investigations. That company has been cited for eight OSHA safety violations in the past nine years.
On June 9, 2019, a tower crane toppled over in downtown Dallas, killing a 29-year-old woman just months before her upcoming wedding. Five others were hospitalized, and several apartments were destroyed. Currently, the crane company is blaming high winds, and saying they followed procedure by placing the crane out of service due to the conditions. However, there are questions as to whether the crane operator erred by leaving the crane in a locked position, rather than allowing the boom to “weathervane,” to reduce wind resistance and minimize the risk of a crash. OSHA has cited that company with 17 safety violations in the last decade.
An April, 2019 tower crane collapse on a Google campus construction site in Seattle was likely caused by the practice of early bolt removal during disassembly. This dangerous practice has become routine to save time. This practice resulted in the senseless deaths of four innocent people, when tower crane parts hurtled from the sky and smashed into their vehicles. The “de-torqing” or early removal of bolts during disassembly is said to have caused a similar accident that killed two workers in Dallas in 2012. That hoisting company was cited and fined.
California: A Model for Tower Crane Safety
As a result of a 1989 incident that killed five people in the heart of San Francisco‘s financial district, California enacted some of the toughest tower crane regulations in the nation.
- Tower cranes in California must be inspected three times before the first load is lifted. State-certified inspectors perform the first two inspections. The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH), better known as Cal/OSHA, does the third.
- Once the crane is in operation, they must undergo intensive inspections every six months.
- In between these formal inspections, crane operators are expected to conduct daily checks of the tower crane, and perform more rigorous inspections for every 750 hours of operation.
- And inspectors must be on the scene when the tower crane is being “jumped” (a section being added or taken out) or dismantled.
- Once a tower crane is erected, but before it lifts its first load, a Cal-OSHA inspector spends about six hours looking for loose bolts, cracked welds, rust, and problems with fail-safe devices, or frayed cables.
- OSHA requires that the tower crane be inspected only once a year. After the 1989 catastrophe, California passed legislation requiring inspections every six months, and mandating that operators submit drawings of the crane’s placement before receiving a permit.
- California law also requires that the inspectors of the tower crane to be independent and not employees of the owner or contractor, and have no financial interest in the development.
Despite California’s stringent laws and regulations of tower cranes, Cal-OSHA inspectors routinely find safety violations. In most inspections, defects are found that can run from a minor problem to a major condition. Some safety breaches result in formal citations or fines. Some are so serious that the crane owner must make immediate repairs or shut down the operation on the spot, costing the developer potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Since these laws were passed, no one has died in a tower crane accident in California.
Liability for Tower Crane Injuries
Most tower crane injuries and deaths can be prevented by making sure the component parts are in good condition and that the tower crane was installed and used properly. When this does not happen, and people are injured or killed, there are many factors in determining liability, or who is held responsible for the damages.
Different laws apply if the injured or deceased person (1) was employed by the company that made or installed the tower crane, (2) was injured while working on or by the tower crane for another company or as a contract worker, or (3) was an innocent passer-by or bystander who is hurt or killed by the tower crane or items falling from it.
- Injured employees’ rights are regulated by worker’s compensation laws, which provides benefits to the injured worker regardless of fault — even if the injuries were due to his or her own negligence. However, these benefits are typically less than the person would receive if he or she could sue the guilty employer.
- As an employee of another company or a self-employed worker, you may be able to sue many parties involved in the erection, maintenance, inspection, or disassembly of the tower crane.
- Innocent bystanders who are injured by tower crane accidents, or the survivors of those who are killed, may likewise sue several entities, including the tower crane designers, owners/suppliers, inspectors, operators, job-site supervisors, and the owner or lessor of the land on which the faulty tower crane was located.
If a tower crane has collapsed, dropped materials, or otherwise hurt or killed a person, OSHA will conduct a thorough investigation into the incident. The investigation may take several weeks or months or more, but the facts they discover may will affect your right to sue the parties at fault.
- Who designed or approved the design for the tower crane?
- Who erected the tower crane, and was it done properly?
- Was the tower crane properly inspected and maintained?
- Was the tower crane inspected by the operator before each shift to ensure it was safe?
- Were there defects in the components of the tower crane that caused it to collapse?
An experienced personal injury law firm can also help you obtain thorough medical care for your physical, emotional, and psychological injuries. They can also help you obtain maximum compensation for all damages, including medical expenses, pain and suffering, and lost wages.
If you have been injured or a loved one killed due to a tower crane accident or collapse, scaffold accident, or other workplace accident, contact the experienced attorneys at TorkLaw right away. Call us at 888.845.9696.