Crane Crew Safety Culture

Everyone on a crew is a safety officer and should say something if they see anything unsafe happening. Here, a ground crew worker with HTS Tree Care Professionals, a 20-year TCIA member company based in Pennington, New Jersey, watches the pick of a large section of a dead oak using three rope slings and one continuous- round sling. Doug Ralph was the climber. Photo taken during Saluting Branches activities at Beverly National Cemetery in Beverly, N.J., in September 2018. All photos courtesy of the author.

Before I was “The Crane Man,” I worked for another local crane company. I had been there for 10 years and was the tree-removal guy, but we ran 14 cranes and I wasn’t the only one doing trees. We had monthly safety meetings, but the concept of crane-assisted tree removals was new, and we lacked real training. Everyone was out there figuring it out for themselves. We would see each other at the end of the day and talk about our close calls and try to figure out how not to repeat them.

One day, there were several of us out doing tree work. Just as I was wrapping up my job, I got a call that one of our guys flipped a crane. He happened to be working for the same tree company I was out for, so we loaded up and headed over to the site. It was bad seeing the boom lying on the ground, contoured to the earth, the truck standing on its rear license plate and the front of the truck 40 feet in the air. It was a very creepy feeling.

We moved into recovery mode. We brought another one of our cranes in to help upright the flipped one. Yes, it usually takes two cranes to upright one flipped one. Keep that in mind when you’re jammed way into someone’s backyard.

The part that still resonates with me today is that everyone on the accident site was telling me, “I knew it was going to go bad.” The ground guy said he wasn’t comfortable with it. The climber knew it wasn’t right, and he came out of the tree before the crane lifted the piece. The operator knew it was rigged too low and the piece was going to flip when it came off, but he didn’t think it was going to flip the crane.

What I took away was that everyone on site watched something go wrong, knowing it was wrong, but nobody said a word until after it happened. Anyone, there could have said something that could have prevented the incident. Everyone on a crew is a safety officer and should say something if they see anything unsafe happening. If you see something that doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t. Speak up! Say something to whoever is in charge.

A five-minute delay to discuss potential safety issues would be time well spent, in my opinion. This mentality is part of what put me on the path of crane safety training 12 years ago. There are some key points to a successful crane job that should stand out. Consider them self-checks to be conscious of or things that need to be in place for safe operations to occur.

Keys for safe crane operation

1) You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

This may not sound as related to safety as it does professionalism, but it sets the tone. The appearance of a clean and fully equipped crew or crane shows your clients they are dealing with people who care enough to keep everything looking good, and who care about safety. Hopefully, it’s not smoke and mirrors, but it is a good starting point.

Don’t be the guy who has a 20-year-old saddle that has been through hell and back, with threads hanging off of every piece of stitching, and say, “It’s great! I’ve had it my whole career and it’s never let me down yet.” The standards say an approved climbing system. Keep your equipment in good condition. If I were to show up in a rusty truck and say, “It hasn’t killed anyone today!” do you really want to be the first of the day? We all see nice stuff and bad stuff – shiny cranes and modern, clean saddles and ropes. There are several options available on the market. Pick which one you like best and use it.

2) It’s a two-way street – I see you and you see me.

Who starts the day more comfortably? A crew that shows up yelling and screaming and nobody knows what’s going on, or the guy who rolls in five minutes early, paperwork in hand, and seems to know exactly what needs to be done? All the little things add up to safety. Appearances can be the first step in a safe work culture, both the way we see ourselves and the way others see us.

3) Beyond appearances, the very first thing that has to happen is that the crane must be set up. If you can’t set up, then there definitely will be no crane removal happening.

Don’t rush it. Take the time for safety. In order to set up, we need to do a site assessment. If you sold the job, you should have a plan. Salespersons should share the plan with the operator, the climber, and the crew. There should be a pre-job safety meeting to point out all the hazards and make everyone aware of any possible problems. We stand a higher chance of success by minimizing our risks.

After taking a ride on a crane, once you reach your position, you would first undo your lanyard from the crane and begin your movement off your climbing system, moving down to set straps and eventually transferring your tie-in point to the tree and disconnecting from the crane immediately afterward.

4) Everything rests on a strong foundation – build it from the ground up.

Once the plan is approved, we need to set up the crane. The first opportunity to either cut corners or build a strong foundation for success begins with the crane setup. You need to know your footprint in order to deal with any obstacles. Is there room for outriggers, counterweights and swing areas? Know your space needed to function safely.

We know that cribbing under the crane needs to be sufficient to hold the load of not just the crane, but the crane and its load as well. We know that those pressures are going to change as we rotate around, boom up and down, pick things up, and put them down.

5) On a crane-assisted job, the climber does not tie into the hook anymore.

There are a number of reasons why. First, the ANSI Standards recommends against it. Second, the spring-loaded gate is not load rated or a positive lock for a lifeline. Yes, we could pin the gate, but we also have rigging hanging there, so it’s best to keep it separate. My recommendation is to have your own setup that can easily be installed on any crane. I prefer one that can easily be inspected for wear or damage, and also one that allows the climber access to the hook by being slightly above the hook.

It is recommended when going for a ride, tied in while the crane is in motion, that a second tie-in point be used. At this point, it is acceptable to lanyard into the hook. This is just for an in-transit double tie-in. Once you reach your position, you would first undo your lanyard from the crane and begin your movement off your climbing system, moving down to set straps and eventually disconnecting from the crane and transferring into the tree.

On a crane-assisted job, the climber does not tie into the hook anymore. There are a number of reasons why.

6) We have many tools to do our jobs, and the crane is just another tool in the arsenal.

But it is one of the biggest, most expensive tools, and it needs to be respected and used as it was designed – to pick static loads. Our safety rules have us wearing PPE, chaps on the ground when cutting, hard hats, safety glasses, hearing protection. All of these things must be in place for safety. With the crane, there are guidelines to using it safely as well. We all need to understand how to use our tools properly. Is a bucket truck a crane? No! It’s a personal lift. Just like your climbing line is not a rigging line.

Cranes are designed for static loads within their charts (capabilities determined by really smart engineers). Cranes do not like going beyond their limits. When used properly, they are great, but when misused, the result can be catastrophic.

It’s simple; cranes pick things up and put them down.

They can do this all day without getting tired. Used safely and properly, the crane can go for days putting sometimes huge pieces, thousands of pounds of material, on the ground, and never breaking a sweat. This is what can make a crane the safer way to do removal work. A climber can fatigue, the crane will not. If maintained and used safely, it will keep going. If not properly maintained and/or not used in a safe manner, it could fail epically, and you will be the next story on the news.

7) One of the best ways to accomplish repeatable static picks every time is by choosing the correct rigging.

We need to know what is acceptable and what isn’t for every situation. There are many options – rope slings, continuous chokes, eye-and-eye slings, even chains. You need to decide which one will work best for you in the application you’re in. Part of accomplishing safe removals with a crane is using the right rigging at the right time. Rope slings are great for brush picks, but not so much for wood or log picks; that is where you would want to switch it up and use your single or double chokers. It’s important to remember, every piece of rigging that goes up on a crane must have a weight tag on it showing its safe working-load limit in the configuration in which it will be used.

8) This is not the time to get lazy about anything.

This is your time to show your skills in rigging the piece perfectly and cutting it perfectly, too. There are several styles of cuts. All of them are great and need to be practiced for when they are needed. No matter which cut you choose, just make sure you cut it fully through so the crane operator can lift it away. It is on the climber to properly rig the pieces to accomplish the static pick. Taking pieces within your crane’s capacity, your rigging’s capacity and everyone’s abilities and limitations is paramount. Do not pick up what you can’t put down.

9) There’s an app for that!

Regulations require a green-log-weight chart to be available on-site for a crane removal. If you don’t have a paper copy, there are apps to determine green-log weight. Have it available for quick reference if needed. There are tools to help confirm that we are doing our job correctly. There are apps to check angles so as not to overload the rigging and to determine distances. These tools are for checking ourselves, to help confirm that what we’re doing is good and to self-evaluate to maintain safety margins.

One of the biggest game changers has been the helmet-mounted communication system. Being able to communicate clearly with one another creates a much safer work environment.

10) One of the biggest game-changers has been the helmet-mounted communication system.

There is no better way to improve safety than to improve communication on the job site. With a crane, trucks, chippers and chain saws all running at the same time, and all of the crew members wearing hearing protection, there is no longer a need to yell to each other or try to be heard over all the noise. Being able to communicate clearly with one another creates a much safer work environment.

11) Even when everything is running smoothly, all crew members on the job still need to stay alert and aware and be able to react quickly to unforeseen circumstances.

There is never a guarantee, even with a perfectly rigged piece, that part of the pick will not give way, sending a branch toward the workers on the ground. For everyone’s safety, don’t let your guard down.

12) The final piece to job safety is having a smooth crane operator.

The crane operator should not pull on the piece before it is cut through and free to be moved. You want to have someone you can hand the piece over to and have them do their part to have it safely float away. Do not be afraid to review what happens on a pick. If it went well or badly, discuss it, learn from it, and remember it for when you see the same scenario again. We will never take down the same tree twice, but you are going to see similarities, and you are going to remember what went smoothly and safely and what shouldn’t be tried again.

Safe crews do not cut corners to go faster; they follow guidelines for safety that come from practiced procedures and repeated successes that have proven to be the safest way to accomplish the job.

Peter Nieves-Sosa is president of The Crane Man, Inc., a 10-year TCIA member company based in Chalfont, Pennsylvania, and founder of the Crane Safety Climber School, now in its tenth year. This article was based on his presentation on the same subject at TCI EXPO 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. To listen to an audio recording of that presentation, go to this page in the digital version of this issue of TCI Magazine online, under the Publications tab, and click here.

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