The acquittal of crane owner James F. Lomma on criminal charges related to a 2008 crane collapse in New York City leaves the public's opinion of crane safety in the cramped, complicated city very much in doubt. Some owners and contractors have not shown they are capable of operating cranes safely without serious accident for a sustained period of time. The extreme density of Manhattan requires extra precautions.
So far, neither criminal prosecutions nor financial liability by the crane owners and operators has been enough to make a difference. To fix the problem, several different remedies should be tried simultaneously.
First, owners and owner associations should speak up with more vigilance on the subject of crane safety. We know the means and methods of construction belong to contractors who shield owners against liability, but there's nothing like the voice of an owner to effect change. In addition to New York City, whose role in policing crane safety has been spotty, we hope that the Real Estate Board of New York, which represents private developers, would put its name behind any push for improved results.
Second, federal and local prosecutors must not level dramatic, overreaching charges, especially in the use of manslaughter statutes, that serve no public purpose in long-shot criminal cases. The Lomma prosecution was the third in New York City in the past 24 months that produced guilty pleas only after named defendants plea-bargained. The main defendants were cleared by juries or judges who saw that the causes of the fatalities were unclear or that responsibility was shared in a way that blame couldn't be brought down heavily on one party or another.
Third, the concepts behind crane safety must continue to evolve. Here, New York City has an opportunity to show national leadership. Next year, the city will require nationally accredited testing as part of licensure for all crane operators, which was one of the recommendations in the multimillion-dollar "High-Risk Construction Oversight" study the city commissioned in 2009. It's a good start, but we also want to see similar testing of riggers, signalers, inspectors and lift directors. Each lifting-team member must be assigned responsibility, not just the operators.
Because of its density, New York City should consider the mandatory de-rating of cranes—say, by 25%—which would force contractors to plan every lift as a critical lift. Finally, the city should put an end to the hazardous practice of hoisting large volumes of concrete by bucket, which routinely is done over or near the public. The tactic also places cranes under undue stress, when much of the developed world uses placing booms.
The mistakes that led to tragedy in 2008 can be redeemed if effective, safe crane work becomes their legacy.