After two men died in a crane collapse in Battersea last week, the public suddenly started treating all cranes with suspicion. Sarah Richardson looks at whether they have good reason to

Barratt Homes issued a statement on Wednesday 27 September 2006. It said: “An incident has occurred at our Viridian development here in Battersea.”

This first confirmation of the accident that had happened the previous evening barely hinted at the whole story. A Falcon Crane Hire crane had collapsed, flinging its 37-year-old operator, John Cloake, 160ft onto the windscreen of a parked car. The man washing that car, 23-year-old Michael Alexa, was then decapitated by the jib of the crane. It took the emergency services four days to recover his body from the wreckage.

The accident was the third UK crane collapse in six years to result in multiple fatalities: three people were killed when a tower crane collapsed in Canary Wharf in 2000, and last year, two died in a similar incident on a Willmott Dixon schools project. Last week’s tragedy, however, was different in at least one significant respect – it was the first to end in the death of a member of the public.

Martin Linton, the Labour MP for Battersea, has spent a week reflecting on the event, and still does not feel able to reassure his constituents, evacuated from their homes last Tuesday, that this or any other construction site is safe. “I don’t understand why this happened. There was no fierce wind, no obvious outward cause. Maybe we are just waking up to a serious problem.”

Despite the comparative rarity of crane collapses, Linton, his constituents and the wider British public now want a credible guarantee of their safety. They are calling for tougher regulations, and want to be consulted over the safety measures in place. The industry must now find a way to respond, or it risks losing the confidence of the residents, whose support, through community backing and planning consent, is crucial to its success.

The public view

As Building went to press, the Metropolitan Police and the Health and Safety Executive were still investigating the collapse, the reasons for which remain unclear. But even before the investigation is complete, residents around the site are demanding assurances that the remaining cranes on the project are secure.

You do come across people cutting corners; a lot depends on how strong the management systems are on site

Bob Blackman, T&G

Ambrose Quadrin, a resident in the block of flats that was evacuated last Tuesday, is one tenant who has become afraid of the site’s cranes since the accident: “They may be okay, but I don’t like being near them,” he says. “It is on my mind, and I know it’s on other people’s.”

The accident has stirred up concerns about the safety of cranes on other sites. Linton says the collapse has caused residents throughout his constituency to reconsider their attitudes to the volume of construction work occurring on their doorsteps: “All over Battersea there are cranes towering over flats. Until this week, maybe nobody had focused on the dangers, but people now feel nervous that cranes are so close to their homes.”

The HSE is trying to calm nerves but acknowledges that there are limits to how far it can go. “We’re aiming to reassure people that this is hardly an everyday occurrence, but we can’t give categorical assurances before an investigation on [Battersea] or any other site.”

Linton believes that, in the absence of a cast-iron assurance, one of two things need to be done. If the HSE investigation shows that the crane was legally useable, but failed because of a technical problem, he wants an overhaul of crane design and of the regulations pertaining to them. “If it was the crane itself, standards need changing. Cranes need to be redesigned to take account of this.”

If the collapse was not connected to the design, Linton argues that the procedures used to check the standards of cranes and their operators should be more publicly accountable, so residents can see that they are being enforced. “It would reassure people if it could be explained what the safety procedures are when a crane is to be used near their home.”

Tougher regulations?

All four of the main causes of a crane collapsing, listed below, are covered by existing legislation or are unlikely to be eliminated by regulatory changes.

Nobody had focused on the dangers. But people now feel nervous that cranes are so close to their homes

Martin Linton MP

  • Poor maintenance. Regulations state that regular checks should be carried out and recorded. In addition, every time a crane is moved from one location to another, operators must complete a record form detailing the move together with additional checks on ropes and slings.
  • Misuse. There are occasions where, because of a lack of available specialised equipment, firms are tempted to take short cuts and make do with the equipment they have on site rather than using the most suitable cranes and other plant.
  • Lack of training. Crane operators are supposed to be trained to CPCS standard, the competency scheme for the plant industry. In addition, regulations state that they should be accompanied by a trained “banksman” – a signaller who works on the ground to load and direct the crane. Specialist training programmes are already mandatory for banksmen, teaching them safe working loads and a coded system of signalling used to communicate with the crane driver, including emergency stop signals. If the banksman has not been fully trained, the crane is in jeopardy, as the driver has no control over the loading or other factors on the ground over which the crane is moving.
  • External factors relating to weather and ground conditions. After the Canary Wharf collapse, the HSE emphasised that wind speed should be checked before a crane is used. New tower cranes are fitted with wind gauges to make readings faster and more accurate. Ground movement can also cause a crane to overbalance – but with properly trained banksmen, any movement should be detected before it becomes critical.
  • Complete technical failure. No recent collapse has been attributed entirely to this; however, the possibility of a freak problem can never be removed by legislation.
Is there a problem with enforcement?

The fact that, despite the tight regulations surrounding the crane sector, accidents are not uncommon suggests that in many instances the regulations are not followed.

Philip James, group head of health and safety at consultant EC Harris, says he has seen evidence of companies ignoring regulations relating to cranes, particularly regarding maintenance. “There is a question mark over whether standards are implemented stringently enough. You do come across people cutting corners; a lot depends on how strong the management systems are on site.”

T&G national officer Bob Blackman has frequently encountered sites that either do not employ trained banksmen, or do away with the role altogether. He says the problem is particularly apparent on smaller sites, such as housing schemes. “On housing sites I’ve seen people using mobile cranes without using banksmen at all. If people are working closer to the ground, they seem more inclined to take risks, but then nobody spots a problem if there is a faulty sling or unbalanced load. Firms using untrained banksmen are also putting people at risk. If someone’s just a guy off site, they wouldn’t have any knowledge of what was dangerous, and probably wouldn’t even know how to signal the driver to stop.”

Blackman says publicly visible records of checks on cranes and their operatives would act as a wake-up call to the industry to enforce the standards that should already be in place to prevent worker deaths, as well as instilling public trust in construction site safety.

The move could also benefit employers in another way. In a passionate speech to the Labour party conference two days after the Barratt crane collapse, UCATT general secretary Alan Ritchie and T&G general secretary Tony Woodley told delegates that the tragedy was a timely reminder of the need for the government to push through its corporate manslaughter bill, which is due to be heard in the next session of parliament. Companies that won’t rise to public demands for accountability could soon be forced to do so by the courts, to answer for deaths that should have been prevented.