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Are cranes to o dangerous?

AGENDA - Until two months ago crane collapses were a rare occurrence for the construction sector. But a spate of recent incidents has put them back in the spotlight. Lisa Glancy asks, is there a cause for concern or are we being over-cautious?

A WORRIED mother has taken her two children out of school amid fears that a tower crane oversailing its classrooms could collapse.

Last month Lindsay Baker removed her children from St Mary Magdalene's school in Bexhill, East Sussex, as she feared the crane would put her children at risk.

Mrs Baker said: 'I took my children back to school after the half-term break and saw this huge crane looming over the school.

'The school told me not to worry but I contacted the Health & Safety Executive and told them I was not having my children under a crane.

'I had a letter from the HSE saying there were faults on the crane but it would not adversely affect safety. But then the crane was dismantled because of the faults. It has now been checked and is going back on the site. I will not have my children there while work is going on, which will be for a minimum of 40 weeks.'

It may seem an extreme reaction but one, it would seem, that has been borne out of a some disturbing recent events.

Eight weeks ago two men were killed when a tower crane collapsed on a Barratt site in Battersea, south London, onto a two-storey block of flats.

Three weeks later a luffing crane failed, leaving its jib hanging on a Sir Robert McAlpine office scheme in the City of London.

The HSE has tried to reassure Mrs Baker and a spokesman said: 'We have been in regular contact with the parents, the school and the site operators. The jib won't cross over the school but there is a slight overhang at the back. The risk is minimal. If we didn't think it was safe, we wouldn't let it operate.

'We don't remember anything causing as much interest as this case but it is close to a school, which understandably raises concerns. The collapse at Battersea wasn't that long ago and it brings it to the forefront of people's minds. It raises the consciousness.'

That collapse took the life of crane driver John Cloake, 37, and local resident Michael Alexa, 23. The death of Mr Alexa, in particular, has sent shockwaves through the local community.

HSE figures shows that Mr Alexa was the first member of the public to be killed in a tower crane collapse in over six years. The number of workers killed in crane accidents over the same period was six.

The HSE spokesman said: 'With seven fatal injuries in six years and in consideration of how many thousands of cranes there are up and down the country it shows that these collapses are very rare.'

Nonetheless, the tragedy has spurred local residents to form an action group to get some answers as to why the tragedy happened and hopefully help prevent the same kind of incident reoccurring.

The Battersea Crane Disaster Action Group meets on a weekly basis and held its second public meeting yesterday (Wednesday), sponsored by Battersea and Wandsworth Trade Union Council and South London Action for Safety and Health.

Julia Brandreth of the BWTUC said: 'What has really outraged the residents is the lack of regulation for the use of tower cranes.'

The Construction Plant-hire Association has been involved in the lifting industry for over 60 years and says that accidents on construction sites involving tower cranes are, thankfully, rare events.

CPA chief executive Colin Wood said: 'I totally understand people reacting like Mrs Baker but there have been extremely few accidents involving tower cranes over the years. But it's fair to say we don't want people to overreact.

'It is an extremely safe industry; it's just unfortunate that over the past five or six years there have been a few high-profile incidents.

'I think they have concentrated the mind; people are more aware of tower cranes. I think the reaction has got to be in proportion to the number of accidents. There are incidents with other types of plant every week.'

The Battersea case has attracted the attention of lawyer Louise Christian, who has worked on a number of high-profile cases, including those of UK detainees imprisoned by the Americans at Guantanamo Bay.

Mr Wood said: 'We are taking further steps to examine, inspect and maintain tower cranes but this is not as a result of these incidents. It was happening already.

'The CPA's Tower Crane Interest Group meets regularly and has been tirelessly working to improve levels of safety in the industry.'

Over the past two years, the CPA has had major input into the recent revision of the Safe Use of Tower Cranes, including the CITB/CPA Tower Crane Erector Training Scheme, the Ciria Guide to Tower Crane Stability document and the forthcoming NVQ in Tower Crane Installation.

Battersea MP Martin Linton promised residents at the first public meeting into the disaster he would push for a wider enquiry into crane safety following the investigation in a bid to prevent accidents like this happening again.

He said: 'I will press for a wider inquiry. Not just in the specific circumstances here but for crane safety in general. The purpose of the inquiry will be to make sure those responsible are held to account not just for the safety here but for safety in the wider sense and to make sure action is taken to stop any similar accidents happening.'

The Battersea action group is circulating a petition in a bid to stop work on the site - a somewhat unrealistic aim, perhaps, but it clearly shows the fears of residents living in close proximity to the site.

The Health & Safety Executive issued a safety alert a week after the collapse, reminding contractors of the safety measures needed when erecting and operating tower cranes.

But the lack of communication between subcontractor Falcon Crane Hire and the families of the victims of the collapse does not bode well.

One industry source said it was unrealistic to expect Falcon to comment. He added: 'It's reasonable to see why Falcon can't comment on something they don't know. They'd be speculating, which isn't advisable.

They could also be under instruction from their insurance company not to say anything, as it may jeopardise any future claims.'

But relatives of those killed may not find such an explanation justification enough for not speaking out on the disaster.

Last week residents were outraged when Falcon said it would not be attending the meeting scheduled for last night. It leaves Falcon accused of being unhelpful instead of addressing the residents, give them some answers and at least listening to their concerns.

And the industry wants reassurances as well. United Crane Operators Association chairman John Batey said: 'Some companies are addressing some of the problems but some are doing absolutely nothing.

'I had a crane driver phone me up recently who said he'd complained about his crane twice and nothing had been done.'

Drivers hope that the recent incidents will at least put renewed emphasis on the importance of maintenance.

UCOA has asked for 'sell-by dates' on old machines as part of a revamped safety regime to prevent further collapses. Operators also want to see more inspections of cranes.

Clearly, as the statistics show, the number of fatalities attributable to falling cranes is rare. But the industry knows that cranes crashing to the ground are high-profile incidents. And high-profile incidents demand highprofile answers.