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Crane Truck Roundtable

An expert panel discusses safety, operator certification and economic challenges.



Participants: John Mortensen, President of Jones Sign (De Pere, WI); Bud Wilson, Owner of The Crane School (DeLand, FL); Jim Glazer, President & CEO of Elliott Equipment Co. (Omaha, NE); Dick Whitteberry, Director of Regional Services, North American Signs (South Bend, IN)

With OSHA regulations changed and changing, and companies struggling to compete in a challenging economy, representatives from sign companies, as well as the crane-truck training and manufacturing industries, discuss installation safety, operator certification and more in this excerpted discussion.

ST: OSHA’s 2010 crane standard revision required certification for crane operators who use machines that lift more than 2,000 lbs. How has this affected the sign industry?

John Mortensen: We run crews around the country to major projects where they stay for weeks or months. Different areas enforce that law more strictly than others, so we’ve had to get all our crane operators certified, starting about three years ago.

ST: Which areas are more strict than others?

John: It’s really random. We went out to Sparks, NV, near Reno, and it was very letter-of-the-law. You go to other places, big cities – we spent some time in Dallas – there is no enforcement at all. All OSHA codes rely on their local people to either enforce them or some other rule that they have.


ST: We’ve heard about sign companies using rerating kits that reduce cranes’ lifting capacity below 2,000 lbs., which then exempts them. How prevalent is this?

Jim Glazer: We’ve had a lot of interest and inquiries into it, but the [November 2014, OSHA compliance] deadline is still a bit away before it needs to go into effect. I think people may be trying to do research on what’s going on, but haven’t quite pulled the trigger, and we don’t think they necessarily will pull the trigger until it gets a bit closer.

ST: Tell me about sign-industry specific crane needs.

John: In our business, there are only two approaches. One is buying a crane that’s going to lift anything you do. The trouble with that is, you only max out your crane at 15 or 20 hours a year, so you bought this big crane, and you pay a big penalty in the mileage for running that crane, not to mention the upfront cost. Otherwise, you buy a crane that’s going to meet your needs for most of your work – the smaller stuff – and then, when you have a big pick, you can’t do it, and you have to rent a crane. Or you try to lift more than your crane’s really set up to do, and that’s where safety comes in.

Dick Whitteberry: The portion of our business that I’m involved in is regional, although we do occasionally send our own installation crews to other parts of the country. I am concerned regarding what will happen with operator licensing. We currently do not see, regionally, very much enforcement of the crane-operator [certification] requirement. Most of that, at this time, would come through general-contractor specifications regarding a construction project, and would not directly relate to smaller projects from individual businesses or smaller construction projects, so we don’t see too much of that yet.

ST: Are more companies trying to have employees certified in light of the new requirements?


Bud Wilson: In Florida, we have some interest in the northern part of the state, more so than the southern part, as far as compliance. The situation is that the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators, the NCCCO, for example, came out with standards for certification based on construction crane operators, not sign people. The guys that run large cranes on construction sites all the time, it’s what they do, and this is what the test was, I think, formed from.

When you take people in the sign industry, who have never had to pour concrete, hang iron or do something with a large rig, and they try to take the same test, they’re running into difficulty with it. You’ve got a two-edged sword here: you need to have the people out there working be aware of their environments, power lines, excavations, different job conditions. On the other hand, when they try to pass this test without any kind of background with this type of test, they’re having difficulty with it.

ST: Despite lift plans and training, people are still electrocuting them-selves. How does that happen?

Bud: A lot of times, the [lift] plan wasn’t planned correctly, and they didn’t allow for certain things, taking shortcuts and just, “We’ve been getting by with it for this many years; we’re going to keep on doing it this way even though it’s not correct.” That attitude is going to catch you eventually. I’ve always had a saying: Have you ever noticed that, when you have an accident, there’s always enough time and money to do it right the second time?

John: We’ve found another factor that’s cropped up in the last few years. Fewer and fewer utilities want to come out and cover a power line when the sign has to go too close to it, or you have to be closer than you’re comfortable with to put it up. We’ve got an escalation plan in our company where our operators just won’t do it, and if the utility refuses to come out, it gets escalated. If you get to the right people at the utility, they do come out, but it’s just not as easy to make happen as it used to be.

Dick: In years past, we had phone numbers for virtually all of the area electrical utilities. If you contacted them, many times, you could get line protection the same day. Now it’s a much more convoluted process, especially with some of the larger providers. You have to call in to a call center and then someone will contact you within a couple of days.


Jim: We’ve been very fortunate in that we’ve not had our equipment involved in many accidents over the years, but one thing that has happened [after a few serious accidents elsewhere] is that we now have to have outrigger interlocks on our machines. Beside going too close to a power line, probably the second most common problem is to not set your machine up correctly.

ST: What about the mistakes that are just repeat infractions?

John: I’ve got an opinion on it. I don’t think there is any concrete answer. It usually is failure to train. An organization that doesn’t believe in training isn’t going to change its ways just because it got fined once or had one accident. If it’s in the culture of the company to not invest in training, they’re never going to invest in training.

Jim: Having a safety culture is very, very important. It comes down to who you hire as employees, to what you do to train them, to what is done on an ongoing basis to reinforce it.

Dick: At the workman level, I think there are two contributing factors, both of which can be addressed through training. One is the obvious lack of knowledge of what their current situation is, their physical situation is. For instance, regarding electrical line dangers, not realizing that the danger is there, not being able to judge the proximity, or simply having no knowledge of it. The other issue is simply at-risk behavior in which someone understands that there is some danger, but chooses to take a shortcut.

Bud: In my classes, one of the questions we ask is about power line/crane contact. It amazes me still, the answers that I get from people that have never had any training. You don’t get but one chance with a power line.

ST: Do you have a wish list for each other? Things you wish would be manufactured, taught in classes or added to signshop safety practices?

John: My big wish is for uniform enforcement of any rule. It’s a dog-eat-dog economic time, and what’ll probably happen with this rule will be like when the UL code started being applied to all sign manufacturing. The big companies had to comply because they were very visible, and the small companies dragged their feet for many years before they complied. Some still don’t. It just adds an economic dynamic to the whole thing.

Dick: John, I’m with you. I see it likely that there will be a significant amount of non-compliance for many years. From an economic standpoint of competing within the industry, it just makes it more difficult for a company that is interested in being compliant and goes through that process.

Bud: Training is the key to preventing accidents, but with the economy the way it is, people renege on training, some of them don’t want to spend the money for it, and then it comes back to haunt them.

Jim: From a manufacturer’s standpoint, training is obviously number one. Then, having the proper equipment, and making sure the equipment is maintained, in proper operating condition and set up correctly, so you have the right tool for the job.

ST: The EPA and NHTSA have introduced new truck-emission guidelines. How will this impact how long companies keep cranes and crane trucks that are manufactured in the future?

Jim: As much as we’d like to see somebody buy a new crane every single year, we also design our machines so that they don’t need to. With that being said, there are definitely some machines that we see traveling around the country that I am surprised are still out working, looking at the condition that they’re in. I think that a lot of that is the companies that are probably the most marginal companies to begin with.

The other question was about truck emissions. Truck emissions have gradually gotten tighter and tighter over the past decade at least. It doesn’t impact what we do as the crane manufacturer much, necessarily. For most sign cranes, we’re buying a truck off a shelf and mounting a crane to it. For us, there’s a little bit more complexity involved in how the unit gets set up, because some of the equip-ment has changed the way things get laid out from the truck manufacturer, and, also, it’s added weight to the chassis. So we’re always working on our designs to make things lighter.

ST: What are some easy things sign companies could do to impact how safely they use cranes?

Jim: Well, reading the manual’s a good place to start.

Bud: Understanding the load chart. Understanding the clearances they have to maintain with power lines. What’s the underlying material like? There are a lot of things, but training, training. It all goes back to the same thing.

John: The best thing sign companies can do is keep the same people as long as they can. The turnover is where the lack of training comes in. Your veterans, the guys you’ve had for a long time, they’ve either been trained, or they’ve had enough on-the-job training that they’re safe.

Jim: One other thing that we’ve found: it sometimes can help to have one person assigned to a given truck and make it their responsibility. They end up getting to know the equipment better; they may take care of it better, etc.

Dick: When you have the same operator on a piece of equipment, they tend both to become tuned to that piece of equipment so they understand it and are familiar enough with it that they know when there’s an issue. Also, the same operator will tend to be gentler on the equipment, and not do things that would advance mechanical failure.


Bud’s Advice: What if you hit a power line?

If you hit a power line while operating a crane:
1. Try to remove it.
2. If the line welds to the boom or cannot be removed, leave it alone. You don’t want to snap the power line.
3. Stay on the crane until the utility company can shut off the power; after the initial shock, it’s the people on the ground who are in the most danger, not you. (Think of a bird on a power line.)

If the crane catches fire after you strike a power line:
1. Go to the lowest part of the crane.
2. Jump to the ground, clearing the crane.
3. Land with both feet together on the ground and maintain balance.
4. Shuffle away from the crane, keeping your feet close together OR jump from one foot to the other until you’re a safe distance from the crane.
5. Avoid having two feet apart on the ground at the same time.




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