Hugh Pratt discusses the USA's new crane safety standard 29 CFR 1226.550

03 August 2010

Picture 1. Fatality rate from crane power line contact in Ontario

Picture 1. Fatality rate from crane power line contact in Ontario

High voltage expert Hugh Pratt on the USA's new crane safety standard.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, charged the Cranes and Derricks Negotiated Rulemaking Advisory Committee (CDAC) with re-writing the 30 year old Construction Crane Safety Standard 29 CFR 1226.550 relating to crane and derrick safety, writes Hugh Pratt, CDAC committee nominee and chairman of Crane Power Line safety.

The committee completed its task in July 2004 and the Rule will be published in the Federal Register on 9 August 2010, and is effective 90 days after publication on 8 November 2010.


Over 30 years a large discrepancy developed between OSHA 1926.550 and ANSI B30 rules as the result of changing designs, technology and modernized work practices which triggered OSHA to charge CDAC to protect workers from current crane hazards and update OSHA's outdated standard.

Consistently the number one cause of crane fatalities in the USA is power line contact. Recent data submitted to OSHA estimate 58 fatalities and 47 horrific injuries per year. There has been some reduction from 1970's levels due mainly to training. The changes in fatalities due to training are not documented in the USA but have been in their close neighbour Canada, (see picture 1).

Crane training was introduced in Ontario in 1972 and mandated in Canada during 1982. It lead to a significant reduction in crane power line contacts. There is, however, no overcoming the underlying cause, which is the inability of humans to gauge distance from an object that is difficult to see.

Despite the best efforts of operators and 'spotters' they are physically incapable of accurately gauging the distance from any part of a crane to a power line. The minimum safe distance is established as 10 foot from a power line of less than 50 kV which includes most of the kerbside distribution power lines in the USA. There are a number of well document reasons why human eyes are unable to gauge a power line against an undistinguished sky. Most significant is the lack of either shadow or other objects with which to make a visual comparison, (see picture 2).

Crucial decisions

The CDAC committee's unanimous decision was to define the increasing levels of danger as a crane approaches a power line. At each level the crane operator is allowed to choose from a 'menu of safety' to add additional 'layers of protection' ensuring that if one layer is breached it will not result in a fatality.

The point at which these different danger zones are breached is a function of crane size, reflecting the ability of the crane's fully extended boom to reach a power line, (see picture 3). While the menu of safety provides choice there are additional provisos requiring the layers of protection to be of differing kinds. In other words, 'documentary' layers must additionally have both a 'physical' and 'warning' layer of protection. This could be, for instance, a risk assessment and a crane barrier and a dedicated spotter.

A mandatory layer of protection in the most dangerous zone will be an insulating link - a device designed to prevent the transmission of power to the rigger. This is not a new idea or law as several US states, for example, Texas and Arkansas, have laws mandating the use of insulating links. As long ago as 1965 Federal law 8C-29 mandated insulating links but was repealed some years later because the insulator link technology at that time was unreliable.

Reliable insulation

In the 1980s crane experts published a specification for a reliable insulating link, which would receive their recommendation. By 1997 improvements in technology allowed this specification to be greatly exceeded with the introduction of the Load Insulator which is now listed by UL (Underwriters Laboratories) and meets the current requirements of the new Federal rule, (see picture 4).

The existence of this new technology has been used by plaintiff lawyers, even without this new Federal Rule, to win substantial, and unchallenged, out of court settlements for clients, or their next of kin, who have suffered electrocution. Current estimates, to date, suggest that that it has cost the industry as much as US$85m a year by not mandating insulating links.

In future the fact that the crane has hit a power line means that it was working inside the critical distance where an insulating link should have been used. The absence of the insulating link will be the cause of the fatality which is avoidable and makes the purchase price of some US$6,000 seem small compared with the plaintiff's demands.

Set in law

The decision of the US government to mandate insulating links [in specific zones] reflected the views of the 23 industry representatives of CDAC and their determination to reduce accidents without posturing or politics. They should be applauded for taking a bold stand to confront the horrifying loss of life among a group of workers whose average age is 33 years. It is a win-win situation without losers. In fact, a plaintiff attorney challenged the committee to mandate insulating links. He told them "put me out of business - I don't want this work, however, if you don't mandate insulating links I will gladly take your money".

The USA law exists on four levels:

1. Federal law, for the whole USA, which is the baseline established via OSHA's Code of Federal Regulations. OSHA enforces this law and may issue citations and fines after fatalities or during complaint driven, or scheduled, inspections. The fines increase dramatically on subsequent similar citations.

2. Twenty-three of the 52 state jurisdictions, for example Texas, have elected to enforce their own OSHA Standards. These Standards cannot be less than the Federal OSHA Standards.

3. Any individual state can also add additional laws and penalties, enforced by that state.

4. The lifting and construction industry establishes its own consensus best practice Standard under the ANSI B30.5 rules (2007). The B30.5 is a voluntary Standard updated on a five year cycle. Another benefit of compliance with the B30.5 is that it can provide a strong line of defence in case of an accident.

About the author

Hugh Pratt was a nominated member of CDAC and attended all its meetings. He has been involved with under-the-hook technology for 18 years and is a world authority on insulating links. He is a member of the IEC for high-voltage insulators and holds a number of engineering degrees.

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