They stand over the city like the great predatory wading birds they are named after. And from time to time, like those great predatory wading birds, they come down swiftly on those below and take a life…often more than one. They are the construction cranes, whose numbers grew with the massive lending sprees that fueled the hi-rise building boom in our great cities.
But the construction cranes don’t take lives with sharp beaks and unerring vision like their avian namesakes. Instead people get electrocuted when the cranes collide with power lines, operators fall out of them, they fall on top of people, or they crush people in the other gruesome ways that heavy complex machinery can destroy the human body.
Hardney Rush was working at a Missouri limestone pit in 2004 when the crane he was working near came in contact with a 7200-volt power line. Rush was electrocuted and pronounced dead an hour later. Charles “Charlie” Jordan was killed in 2004 while working on a bridge project in Connecticut. His crane fell into the icy Housatonic River. Thomas Nadeau was working on a building project in Georgia in 2000. He was crushed to death when his crane tipped over. Dustin Tartar was killed in 2008 while working on MGM Mirage’s CityCenter project in Las Vegas, Nevada. He was caught between the counterweight system and the track of the crane he was operating.
There is a disturbing pattern to the news coverage of crane tragedies. News reports rarely mention the names of workers killed or injured. The victims are usually anonymous "workers" who are killed or anonymous "workers" who are rushed to the hospital with grave injuries. For the most part they are faceless nameless casualties of America’s class war, without even a Tomb of the Unknown Worker to honor their sacrifices.
In fact those of us who don’t wear hardhats to work didn’t really notice that cranes were falling until they began to fall on us. When a crane fell on a New York apartment building near the United Nations in March of 2008, six of the seven dead were construction workers, but one was a young woman named Odin Torres from Florida who happened to be in the apartment building that was destroyed. A local bartender pointed out that if the crane had collapsed during the annual March 17 St. Patrick’s Day festivities, the death toll would have been a lot higher. Winfred Stafford of Oklahoma City was killed when a crane fell on top of his car in July 2008 while he was observing a steeple being placed on top of his church.
I didn’t notice much about construction cranes either except that they were really big and they were all over Chicago’s downtown. They seemed almost camouflaged by the high rise buildings around them. They’re also not easy to see from the ground because the perspective is all wrong. My best view of them came from a 18th floor dental office, but even then they seemed distant and silent. But after the New York disaster of March 2008, I started thinking about cranes a lot and did a little reading. If any crane operators see this, I invite you to publicly humiliate me for any factual errors or misunderstandings.
Cranes are intricate and magnificent beasts, even the smaller mobile ones. By paying close attention, you can learn a lot about the physics of motion, which you really have to know if you want to stay alive around a crane. Assembling and running one of the huge ones takes the kind of careful preparation and double-checking you would normally associate with the Apollo Moon Project.
The checklist for safe operation of a crane is pretty long, but here’s a few highlights taken from a contractors trade magazine:
- Does the crane operator know how to operate the particular model on the job site? Do they understand the load chart? Has the crane been thoroughly inspected?
- Is the working area is prepared correctly? Is the the load weight and radius correct? Is the crane level and are the outrigger pads in place to keep it level?
- Do the riggers know the weight of the load. Do they know the capacity of the rigging hardware? Can they retain the load while it is in the air? Can they control the load so it doesn’t shift position?
- Has the job site been checked for electrocution hazards? Have lines been de-energized? Have flagged barriers been set up? Does the crane have technology to warn of proximity to energized lines?
- Has a safe working radius been established to prevent people being struck or crushed as the crane moves around? Are barriers in place with warning flags? Have warning decals and guards put in place on the crane itself so that workers don’t get crushed between its moving parts?
- Have safe procedures been set up for assembling and disassembling the crane? This is especially critical for the very large tower cranes used to construct large buildings.
- Since job sites often have many contractors working on the same project, are there clear lines of communication and authority? Is everyone on the same page about safety procedures?
Lots of things have to be right and nothing can be wrong. Half-right can get you 100% dead. Operating a crane takes a highly educated person with steady hands, a calm demeanor, good communication skills, a steely concentration and the moral fiber to say "No" to a contractor who wants you to do something stupid and irresponsible. In short, a good crane operator is a secular saint and a genuine class act.
Shawn Carlson is a typical class act crane operator. His dad was a crane operator for 35 years and Carlson first climbed part-way up the ladder to the crane cab when he was 5. His dad taught him to take things slow and easy. Macho recklessness has no place in a job where you are moving heavy weights around other human beings.
"It takes a lot of concentration. You can’t brake too fast, for example, or the hook will start swinging, and it’s tough to get it to stop. And when it’s windy out—that’s the most stressful time—the guys might ask me to bring a load over ‘a little bit.’ But the wind blows into my boom, and I have to be in third or fourth gear to get it over there. I have to get it to go and stop, go and stop, to move it that ‘little bit.’
A crane operator depends upon their rigger to help guide the loads. Crane operators and riggers have their own special vocabulary they use as they communicate by radio. The crane operator often cannot see what is going on as the rigger guides in the load. It’s a lot like an airline pilot and an air traffic controller. It’s all about getting the cargo in safely. Shawn Carlson describes his riggers job like this:
[When he] says to ‘trolley down a dog’ he means a unit of measurement. He wants the hoist lowered about 6 inches. That’s the dog. He might say one dog, two dogs, three dogs. One time he pulled out a ‘Chihuahua.’ Then it was a ‘Saint Bernard’ one day. A whisker and a hair are the same thing. A blondie is a hair. A hair also is about 6 inches. A bump is a little more than a hair, about a foot. [He'll] say 20 different words that mean the same thing. Sometimes he’ll use the actual footage, too, especially if I’m in a blind spot. He’ll say ‘come down 3 feet.’
Carlson is honest about the stress of the job:
It takes a lot of inner energy to make this equipment do what it needs to do. The first three weeks I was up here, I had to go home every night, have a Coke, and just watch TV for a while, like my dad used to do. When I was a kid, I couldn’t figure out why he’d always come home and take a nap. But you have to unwind. It gets pretty stressful sometimes."
Although being a crane operator has traditionally been a male preserve, women are starting to break into the field. Jennifer Moffett is a Health and Safety Co-ordinator at All Canada Cranes. Moffet explains that many construction workers are still getting used to the idea of seeing women in a non-traditional job. Having a sense of humor can help. Moffet will wear a pair of pink work boots to loosen things up so she can get her safety message across.
“A lot of older operators don’t always like it when I tell them they have to do things a certain way even though they’ve done it the same way for 30 years,” she says. “Some of that is because I’m a woman, some of it is because I’m young and they don’t always think I know what I’m talking about. Then I start quoting the code and the law and they get it.”
When it comes to safety, the right attitude is critical according to Paul Satti, of the Construction Safety Council.
“When a crane is on the job, often there is a ‘let’s just get it done’ attitude. This can be dangerous,” he says. “With cranes, you can’t just make do.”
But bad attitudes on the job are only one part of the picture.
The physics of safe crane operation is no secret. So why are cranes killing more people than ever? Perhaps Albert Einstein had an answer when he said," Politics is harder than physics."
It’s crane politics, not crane physics that’s the culprit.
The Bush administration in Washington is bad crane politics with an especially bad attitude. Under the leadership of Elaine Chao, the Bush Labor Department has sat on a set of tougher crane standards for 4 years. Only 15 states even require crane operator certification. There is no standard for certification on the federal level. According to Greg Huddleston, writing for the American Society of Safety Engineers, training is the key. Yet Bush, "The Education President", seems to prefer poorly educated operators of heavy equipment that kills people regularly.
On June 17th, 2008 The Center for Construction Research and Training issued a report with an 8 point program for improving crane safety. Training, certification and rigorous crane inspections were among its leading recommendations. It was immediately endorsed by the AFL-CIO’s Building Trade Council (BCTD) as well as the International Union of Operating Engineers. BCTD President Mark Ayers had this to say upon the report’s release:
OSHA needs to put in place its Safety Standards for Cranes and Derricks, which have been gathering dust at that agency for four years….Meanwhile, more construction workers die, bystanders and first responders are injured, killed and put at risk, and we wait for OSHA to act.
The report was met without even a yawn from the White House. A search of the White House web site press releases reveals nothing about crane safety at all. There is however a helpful suggestion that perhaps the web visitor meant to type in "cane safety".
But why on god’s green earth would the Feds sit on regulations that would protect Americans? Isn’t that how Bush won the 2004 election? By promising to keep us safe? Well apparently the "us" he was referring to wasn’t us at all, but the big banks and their pals who own the huge construction companies. Filling their job sites with highly educated professional construction workers who come with ethical standards and a commitment to safety backed by a hawk-eyed OSHA might cut into their mega-profits.
This easy-credit-rush-to-get-it done building has transformed our city skylines into Brobdingnagian Erector Sets . But exactly what was getting built with all of that money and the accompanying blood that was shed?
The New York project where the March 2008 crane disaster killed 7 people was a 46 story luxury condo. When "Big Blue", the world’s largest crane, collapsed in Milwaukee in July of 1999, it was at the site of the Miller Park sports arena. Two workers were killed in NY City in May 2008 when a crane collapsed where a 32 story luxury condo was going up. A construction crane collapsed at a Houston oil refinery killing 4 workers in July 2008. A crane collapsed at a construction site for a new coal-fired power plant near Kansas City in May 2008, killing one worker. A worker was killed while disassembling a crane near Annapolis at a hi-rise condo project in May 2008. Two workers were killed in Miami in March 2008 when a crane fell over at a hi-rise office project. In February 2007, two carpenters were crushed to death at MGM-Mirage CityCenter casino project by a large aluminum mold that dropped from a crane. In Las Vegas a crane operator lost his life in June 2008 while working at the MGM-Mirage CityCenter project.
So, let me get this straight. People are dying for sports stadiums, luxury condos, hi-rise office towers, casinos, polluting oil refineries and coal fired power plants? Damn it, where is our sense of priorities? We have homeless people sleeping on the streets while we fall behind the world in alternative energy production. And we’re killing people for condos, casinos and more pollution?
But even if you think building those sorts of things is ok, surely they are not worth a single human life. The MGM-Mirage CityCenter project on the Vegas strip has killed so many people that the union workers called for a protest strike in early June. Workers blame speed up and a "cut corners" mentality for the casualties. They call it the "City Cemetery". Now remember, this is a union-built project in a union town. Can you imagine how bad it must be on non-union sites?
So why hasn’t there been a nationwide protest by construction workers over the crane catastrophes and the rising death rate from other construction accidents? Maybe because only about 16% of construction workers are union these days. That contrasts with 80% in the 1950’s. Part of this decline is due to the overall attack on unions that has been going on for the past couple of generations, but some of it was self-inflicted.
In the bad old days, the building trades were notorious for their discriminatory policies against women and people of color. There was considerable financial corruption and some union locals were closely tied to organized crime. The building trades were the most politically conservative wing of the AFL-CIO and were often run undemocratically as private fiefdoms. They did not do enough enough organizing or public education. When student protestors desperately needed support from the labor movement to help end the Viet Nam war, they were physically attacked by building trades members. All of that dismal behavior sapped the the building trades’ ability to resist employer attacks, organize new members or form alliances with progressive groups.
Well today’s building trades are not your father’s unions anymore. They’ve come a long ways and recently have shown that they can even organize new members, some of whom are no longer solely white and male. There is a new militancy and the Building & Construction Trades Department has even endorsed Barack Obama for president. Backing a black man for president would have been unheard of in an earlier time. It’s not all bread and roses yet. For example, some Operating Engineers’ locals in NYC who represent crane operators still have mob ties that need to be broken.
We’re never going to have safe crane operations without a revitalized labor movement to confront the naked greed of the banks and big construction companies. It was the big bucks of the banks and the big corporations who pushed for the "deregulation" that has turned America’s building sites into slaughter houses. It was the big bucks of the banks and corporations who starved OSHA of funding and turned a watchdog into lapdog. We don’t need an OSHA lapdog. We need an OSHA attack dog, a pit bull who won’t back off when it comes to job safety.
It’s also time for the labor movement to confront the complacency and corporatization of the Democratic Party. Too much of the party leadership is in bed with the same financial interests that are killing workers for profit. The long overdue national certification of crane operators as well as the rigorous inspections of construction sites won’t come with today’s Democratic Party leadership. It will take a whole new politics altogether, maybe even a whole new party that truly represents working class interests.
It won’t be easy. Crane politics really is harder than crane physics.
And don’t forget, the labor movement is more than just its union members. All of us live, work and play in buildings and we owe a lot to the men and women whose hard work makes that possible. Let’s join with them to ensure that their lives are protected while they work. Construction is never going to be risk-free, but today’s record of occupational murder and mayhem is unworthy of a great nation.