Experience advantage

25 April 2008

It is generally accepted in industrialised countries that equipment used at work should be inspected at regular intervals to ensure that it has not deteriorated to an extent where it is unsafe to use. This is particularly important with cranes and other lifting equipment where failure can lead to human tragedy, costly delays to projects and prosecution of companies and individuals. Consequently, most countries have legal requirements for the inspection of cranes, setting out, in more or less detail, the frequency of inspection and who should carry this out.

In the European Union the primary legislation requiring inspection of work equipment, including cranes, is Directive 95/63/EC, which amends the Use of Work Equipment Directive 89/655/EEC. This requires employers to ensure that where safety of the crane depends on correct installation the crane “shall be subject to an initial inspection (after installation and before first being put into service) and an inspection after assembly at a new site or in a new location by competent persons within the meaning of national laws and/or practices.”

The Directive goes on to say, “The employer shall ensure that work equipment exposed to conditions causing deterioration which is liable to result in dangerous situations is subject to:

• periodic inspections and, where appropriate, testing by competent persons within the meaning of national laws and/or practices

• special inspections by competent persons within the meaning of national laws and/or practices each time that exceptional circumstances which are liable to jeopardize the safety of the work equipment have occurred, such as modification work, accidents, natural phenomena or prolonged periods of inactivity,

• to ensure that health and safety conditions are maintained and that the deterioration can be detected and remedied in good time.”

Similar requirements are found in the OSHA regulations in the US and in the regulations of most other industrialised countries. A consistent theme in these is the reference to “competent persons” to carry out periodic detailed inspections (referred to in the UK as “thorough examinations”). The experience and qualifications required for a competent person depends on the national regulations of each country. In the UK, for example, the Approved Code of Practice to the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 (LOLER) require that:

“You should ensure that the person carrying out a thorough examination has such appropriate practical and theoretical knowledge and experience of the lifting equipment to be thoroughly examined as will enable them to detect defects or weaknesses and to assess their importance in relation to the safety and continued use of the lifting equipment.”

This means that a competent person must have a good technical background, understanding the engineering principles behind the design and operation of the crane. They also need knowledge of the legal requirements for inspection of cranes, including intervals between inspections, different types of inspection (intermediate inspections and thorough examinations) and documenting the results of the inspection. Also important is specific knowledge of the machine they are inspecting, so that they can both find and assess the significance of defects.

Finally, an essential attribute for the competent person carrying out inspections is independence. This is essential if inspections of cranes are to be effective and meaningful. As the guidance to LOLER puts it:

“It is essential that the competent person is sufficiently independent and impartial to allow objective decisions to be made. This does not mean that competent persons must necessarily be employed from an external company. If employers and others within their own organisations have the necessary competence then they can use it. However, if they do, they must ensure that their in-house examiners have the genuine authority and independence to ensure that examinations are properly carried out and that the necessary recommendations arising from them are made without fear or favour.”

This leaves owners and users of cranes with two alternatives - employing a third party or using in-house competent persons who have the required “genuine authority and independence.”

The third party option has the benefit that the independence of the competent person should be assured, as they are not employed directly by the crane owner. They should not be subject to commercial pressure to be lenient in the assessment and reporting of defects and, being full time competent persons, should be well aware of their legal duties. The downside, however, is that competent persons from third party inspection organisations, be they government bodies, insurance companies or independent inspection service supplier, are generally involved in the inspection of a wide range of lifting equipment. Consequently they cannot have detailed machine-specific product knowledge if they are inspecting a wide range of crane types, and possibly other types of lifting equipment.

The in-house option has the primary benefit of being able to use competent persons who have intimate knowledge of the cranes they are to inspect and should, therefore, be able to identify defects and make valid judgements of their significance. There are, however, two potential problems with the in-house approach - firstly, the fact that in a small company competent persons may have other duties and, secondly, the issue of independence.

The problem with “part time” competent persons is that they will build up experience of their roles more slowly than someone undertaking it on a full time basis. In-house competent persons may also have to deal with the issue of independence. For example, if an in-house competent person reports to the operational side of the business they may well feel that they are under real or apparent pressure to complete inspections as quickly as possible, ignoring or minimising the seriousness of defects. Also, if a competent person has other duties such as supervising the installation of tower cranes there may be a confusion of roles, which again impacts on independence.

The answer to the independence issue is an organisational structure that ensures that a “Chinese wall” is in place between the operational side of the business and the competent person. This may be arranging for the competent person to report directly to the managing director, with the authority to place a prohibition on any crane that is found to be unsafe to return to service after an inspection. The effectiveness of this, however, relies on the directors of crane owning and operating companies giving sufficient backing to their competent persons.

This author's opinion is that the most effective inspections of cranes are carried out by in-house competent persons having extensive and detailed knowledge of the machines they are inspecting but with the overriding proviso that their independence is ensured by the company's organisational structure, allowing them to make recommendations “without fear or favour

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