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You be the Judge

Sarah Spivey, the managing director of Modulift, explains why it was important to respond to a recent ruling by a U.S. judge that has caused a stir in the lifting industry.

The crane and rigging industry is still reeling from the impact of a shockwave. The pulsating disturbance caused crane operators, riggers, engineers and anyone else who knows the difference between a hook and a shackle, to stand thunderstruck. It was a tremor felt around the world after a U.S. judge inexplicably decided that a spreader bar should be redefined as part of the load—not the rigging.

Consider the volume of best practice guidance and standards that prevent riggers and other personnel from being under (or near in some cases) the load. Now ponder what goes into attaching spreader bars and other below-the-hook equipment to the item to be lifted—the load, as we know it. If crane professions can’t access the area beneath the spreader (because it’s been redefined as part of the load), how can they feasibly connect it to, er… the load?

It’s a rhetorical question that the world’s engineers couldn’t answer. But the industry has been confronted with that very issue after an administrative law judge with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) Review Commission did not accept a crane rental company’s argument that the spreader should not be considered part of the load, after a citation alleged that they were negligent when personnel were beneath it during a site inspection.

I’m not going to repeat the whole report from the MSHA—it can be easily found online—but certain facts were seemingly acknowledged by all parties, ruling out the possibility that this was a unique set of circumstances or the judge could have been confused by the different elements he had to consider. This was a routine operation and the spreader was lifted without a load attached. It was rigging equipment being lifted by a crane. There was no load involved, or at least not one that any crane professional would acknowledge.

Alarmingly, the judge did not accept the rental company’s references to OSHA, which define the spreader as part of the rigging. The judge simply said OSHA standards are not legally binding on MSHA, thus putting the crane industry, particularly those involved in mining activities, in an impossible situation.

As the rental company said, there will be no way to lift a spreader bar and attach it to a load without being in violation and incurring serious penalties if this judgement stands. Spreader bars are designed to make a lift safer and this prohibitive language associated with their use is unhelpful.

Crisis management

One can tell a lot about an industry when a storm cloud passes overhead. Or an earthquake hits, as would be a better analogy in this case. The crane industry has rallied together in support of the rental company involved and I’m sure its appeal will have lots of weight behind it. Meanwhile, crane thought leaders—Modulift representatives among them—have made public their responses.

I’ve blogged before about the importance of elevating key representatives within a company to thought leadership status. And at times like this the advantages of doing so really come to the fore. Trade media and customers have confronted us with many questions since the judge’s ruling and it’s been a pleasure to reply. Not only does it associate our name with a key issue, but in providing our comments, we know the industry at large is receiving sound information. I can’t understand why, in similar cases, manufacturers and others keep their heads below the parapet.

Anthony Culshaw, our senior design engineer, led the charge. When we first discussed the case, he was particularly puzzled as to why the MSHA judge had chosen to disregard OSHA. As Anthony said, defining the spreader as a load would have serious consequences and would require amendment to almost every standard within the industry. MSHA seemingly came to their own conclusion on this without consulting OSHA, which surprised us all.

In accordance with Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations (LOLER) in the UK, for example, a spreader is considered an “accessory for lifting” which is defined as “work equipment for attaching loads to machinery for lifting”. In other words, it’s rigging equipment, not the load. The UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) produces its own lifting legislation (such as LOLER) but also works closely with the Lifting Equipment Engineers Association (LEEA) to help them better understand the industry. That connection with industry is very important but was not apparent in the recent MSHA case.

Anthony reiterated the point to a leading magazine in our sector: “Lifting is a heavily regulated industry and a huge amount of work has gone into producing best practice guides and standards. As a result of this the understanding of law when it comes to lifting should almost always require the involvement of a professional organisation within our industry. The spreader should retain its definition as part of the rigging, and the correct advice on this should have been given prior to the judge’s ruling.” Hear, hear!

Sue Caples, our technical director, was equally vociferous. As she pointed out, when a lifting rig is being rigged up, there is no load on the spreader bar other than bending forces due to the self weight of the beam. Spreaders are typically designed to lift many tons of load, and so in an unloaded state they would not be experiencing anywhere near the stresses for which they are designed for. In short it is safe to work in their vicinity.

In conclusion, the judge’s comments make it difficult to put spreaders to work because of the inherent nature of their use. It is common practice to position the spreader bar directly above the pick points on the load being lifted in order to connect up the bottom of the rigging, particularly if there are height restrictions and the bottom slings are short. It is entirely dependent on the accessibility of the pick points and the shape of the load as to whether spreaders can be kept off to one side of the pick points.

Singing in harmony

The case also brings back to the surface the issue of harmonisation. There are so many jurisdictions, standards and best practice guides relevant to the crane industry that there is too much room for manoeuvre, as the MSHA judge demonstrates. Imagine how advantageous it would be if industry worked together to ensure unity in best practice and interpretation of standards and regulations.

I wasn’t surprised to hear from Anthony that his team can expect to manufacture to 15 different standards within the course of a year. In fact, he gave a talk at an industry event in Aberdeen last year about the importance of moving towards global standardisation. Anthony reported in his presentation that ISO’s Cranes, Safety, Load lifting attachments standard, is the closest thing we have below-the-hook, but it’ll take time to become ubiquitous, even if the global industry is united in adopting it.

Imagine the engineering time and expertise that is used on meeting the appropriate standards, where it could be applied to product innovation, thus, benefitting the industry. Currently, orders are subject to checking against regional, organisational and sector-related standards. Of course, we try to manufacture as standard to as many as possible but the abundance of different codes and documents doesn’t make personnel on the front line safer or lifting more efficient.

I wish the rental company involved in the matters above good luck with the appeal; we’re supporting them. Let’s hope common sense prevails.

Sarah Spivey
Managing Director
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