Refining the requirements

With a deadline looming, OSHA is under pressure to resolve crane operator certification issues.

Crane July 2013

Photo: Washington State Department of Transportation


  • The rule states a certified operator is “deemed” qualified, but many in the construction, insurance and certification industries disagree.
  • Experts claim factors such as boom length or attachments are more relevant than capacity in determining operator skill.
  • Some stakeholders say the certification requirements, as written, will increase employer costs but not improve safety.

OSHA issued its long-awaited Cranes and Derricks in Construction Standard in 2010, yet parts of the final rule remain under debate.

At issue are operator certification requirements that initially were scheduled to go into effect in November 2014. Stakeholders have raised concerns about language in the final rule equating certification with qualification, as well as the requirement for operators to be certified by both type and capacity of crane.

After hosting three meetings on the requirements in April, OSHA in May proposed delaying the effective date by three years. OSHA said the extension would give the agency time to consider a potential rulemaking or take other action to resolve the certification dispute.

“It is rather unusual, to say the least, that here we are two-and-a-half years after the rule was published and we’re still talking about the way OSHA is going to interpret it,” Graham Brent, executive director of the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators in Fairfax, VA, told Safety+Health in April.

Bill Smith, vice president of claims and risk management for Atlanta-based NationsBuilders Insurance Services Inc., served on OSHA’s Cranes and Derricks Negotiated Rulemaking Advisory Committee, known as C-DAC. The 23 members of C-DAC met monthly from July 2003 to July 2004 to create a draft regulation for OSHA. Smith expressed confidence that the final rule will improve crane safety overall but said OSHA needs to “fix” the certification issues.

“If certification equals qualification, we’ve gone backwards,” Smith said. “And if type and capacity stay, it’s going to be a huge expense to the industry, and it’s not going to give you a better result – just a false sense of security that you have a safer and more qualified operator.”

Certification vs. qualification

The previous crane rule dated back to 1971. One of the major features of the new standard is requiring crane operators to be certified by an accredited testing organization or an audited employer program. “[Certification] was a fundamental foundation test to get your foot in the door in the industry, which was a whole lot more than we had in the old regulation,” Smith said.

However, he contends that OSHA took that a step too far in this passage from Section 1926.1427, which states (emphasis added):

“An operator will be deemed qualified to operate a particular piece of equipment if the operator is certified under paragraph (b) of this section for that type and capacity of equipment or for higher-capacity equipment of that type.”

“Certification in no way, shape or form was ever meant to equal qualification,” Smith said. “The employer has to be the deciding factor of whether I’m qualified to run that crane or not.”

He likened certification to a driver’s license. A newly licensed driver can legally drive from the East Coast to the West Coast but lacks the experience to navigate interstate highways on a cross-country trip. Likewise, someone who has only driven with an automatic transmission is not qualified to take the wheel of a stick-shift vehicle without training.

If certification is deemed qualification, then “we’ve gone 40 years back in time and made the workplaces less safe than they would have been without the card because that card doesn’t mean you’re qualified to run all the configurations of every crane,” Smith said. “It just means that you’ve passed basic knowledge requirements to start to get into the seat.”

Brent, whose organization has been certifying operators since 1996, agreed. He said the written and practical exams for certification are designed to test basic crane knowledge and skills, but do not take into account an operator’s experience with a particular type of crane or configuration, safety record, and basic familiarity with different types of cranes. That gap usually is filled by the employer.

Read answers to 10 FAQs on the certification requirement delay from the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators.

Debbie Dickinson, executive director of Atlanta-based Crane Institute Certification, emphasized that wise employers do not ask a new operator to perform a difficult lift on the first day. “There is a foundational qualification,” she said of certification. “[Employers should] match certified crane operators by job based on experience, the machine to be used and their familiarity with that machine.”

From OSHA’s point of view, the words “deemed qualified” were added to bring clarity, not confusion. In an email to S+H, an agency spokesperson said the old rule required employers to train operators and limit crane operation to workers who were qualified by training or experience. C-DAC’s proposal called for certification but also removed the requirement for employers to independently qualify operators, so, according to the spokesperson, OSHA inserted the language to clarify that certification satisfies the regulatory requirement to be able to operate a crane.

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