Las Vegas Sun

March 23, 2019

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Union turns a worried eye on construction cranes

AFL-CIO to ask Legislature to reform already strict laws

Sun Topics

Nevada has some of the most strict construction crane laws in the country, but labor officials want them improved.

Pointing to the unprecedented cluster of cranes on the Las Vegas Strip, the spate of recent deaths in construction accidents and deadly crane collapses elsewhere in the country, the state AFL-CIO plans to ask the 2009 Legislature to change crane safety laws, the organization told the Las Vegas Sun.

“We’ve done a lot here, but you can never stop doing this stuff,” AFL-CIO chief Danny Thompson said. “Whenever you have new problems, you have to go forward.”

The organization is still considering its requests, but they may include laws that require more training and new communication systems, Thompson said.

A group that represents contractors insists crane laws in Nevada are stringent enough and says it’s likely to oppose new ones.

Cranes were involved in three of the 12 construction fatalities on the Strip over just less than 19 months. But none of the accidents rivaled the dramatic crane failures recently in New York City and Miami, or the crane collapse that killed three people in 1994 in Laughlin.

In February 2007, two carpenters were crushed to death at CityCenter by a large aluminum mold for concrete when it was mistakenly unhooked from a crane. Last month, a crane oiler at CityCenter was crushed between the counterweight and the track of a crane.

In addition, two years ago the crane system at the Hoover Dam bridge project collapsed under heavy winds. Two weeks ago, a crane at CityCenter malfunctioned and began swaying, briefly shutting down traffic on the Strip. Nobody was hurt in either instance.

The density of cranes in Las Vegas right now is rare if not unheard of. The Strip alone has 42 stationary tower cranes, according to Nevada’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. CityCenter and Cosmopolitan, adjacent projects overseen by Perini Building Co., will together add eight hotel and condominium towers to the Las Vegas skyline by the end of 2009. To get there, about 60 cranes of different types, including mobile cranes, compete for space on roughly 70 acres at any given time, people knowledgeable about the sites say.

Nevada crane laws were first updated to be more strict than federal standards in 1997, after the Laughlin incident. They require OSHA oversight when cranes are erected or taken down and require contractors to cordon off areas around cranes carrying particularly heavy loads.

The law also requires cranes to undergo reviews by certified inspectors who don’t work for crane owners.

In 2005, just in time for the surge in growth on the Strip, lawmakers updated crane regulations to require that operators pass a certification test conducted by an outside organization.

Together, Nevada’s laws are a lot more restrictive than those found in most other states. In 35 states, for example, workers don’t need any license to operate a crane, a recent Associated Press investigation found.

Long-delayed federal crane standards, expected to move forward this summer, include provisions to require certification of operators in all states. At a hearing in the House on Tuesday, lawmakers pressed federal OSHA to speed up the agency’s release of the new guidelines.

In Nevada, Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, who sponsored the crane law that passed in 2005, said she toured CityCenter and “felt really good that we passed what we did. At least I know the people climbing into those seats have passed a test. It was a very proactive thing that we’ve done and I’m glad we’re ahead of the curve, especially with the construction boom.”

But many involved, including Smith, said crane laws could be better still.

Brett Groussman, who oversees crane operators for Turnberry Construction at the Fontainebleau construction project on the Strip, expects to see regulations that would require contractors to submit crane inspections to OSHA for review, as other states require. Under the current law, cranes must be inspected by a third party, but the state does not collect every inspection report to ensure that every crane has passed the test.

Groussman called Nevada OSHA in January asking it to require review of inspections and thinks that change could be in the works.

Smith said she has been involved in discussions to require new crane operators to spend a certain number of hours running the crane under supervision before they’re granted a license.

Groussman agreed with the proposal. “People are throwing licenses out there like Frisbees now,” he said.

Another concern is the risk of communication failures, said Greg McClelland, a safety expert for the Ironworkers Labor Management Trust who convenes monthly safety advisory committee meetings of OSHA officials, union representatives and contractors.

As is standard on many construction sites, workers at CityCenter and other places in Las Vegas use radios to pass on important instructions to the people who operate cranes, direct them from the ground and attach and detach loads.

Radios occasionally malfunction, McClelland said. Also, they operate on multiple frequencies, which can be dangerous on a site with numerous cranes working at the same time. At CityCenter, communications shortcomings have led to collisions between cranes, he said.

No one has been injured and no cranes have collapsed, he said. But collisions can throw cranes off balance and cause them to topple.

Dielco Crane, one of the large crane operators in Las Vegas, did not return calls from the Sun. Neither did the Operating Engineers Union Local 12, which represents crane operators in Las Vegas. But a Dielco Crane representative told Steve Holloway, vice president of Associated General Contractors, that only one crane collision has occurred at CityCenter and radio communication there is not a problem, Holloway said.

McClelland said his safety committee is working to draft legislation to require crane workers to use hard-wired phones on any project with cranes that operate in overlapping radii.

“Without hard-line communication it’s difficult to coordinate safely,” McClelland said. “It’s amazing to me that they haven’t had anything really bad happen yet.”

New crane legislation may face a fight from contractors.

“I don’t think crane safety is anything we should be concerned about here,” said Holloway, who represents hundreds of local contractors. He said the Associated General Contractors would oppose new laws.

“There are bigger safety issues,” Holloway said. “I honestly believe we have the strictest crane regulations in the country.”

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