Monday, June 24, 2019

The Fatal Dallas Crane Collapse

Two weeks ago, on Sunday June 9, a severe thunderstorm appeared over downtown Dallas, Texas.  Sudden thunderstorms are not uncommon in this region, and the residents of the Elan City Lights Apartments had no undue reason for concern.

But they should have been worried.  Around 2 PM that afternoon, a construction crane owned by Bigge Crane and Rigging Company toppled over onto the apartments, slicing through the buildings "like a hot knife through butter," in the words of one eyewitness.  One person, 29-year-old Kiersten Smith, died in her apartment, and five other residents suffered various degrees of injury.  More than 500 people have been temporarily made homeless while the building's safety is being assessed and repairs commence.

This is only the latest in a number of construction-crane accidents that have happened in the U. S. and elsewhere in recent years.  As a CNN report pointed out, from 2011 to 2015 Texas led the nation in the number of crane-related deaths, with nine occurring since 2011.  While this means you probably shouldn't take out a special crane-fatality rider on your life insurance, nine deaths, especially if they were not construction workers but ordinary citizens who were unable to do anything with regard to crane safety, is nine too many.

As crane-safety expert Thomas Barth pointed out in a CNN interview after the accident, there are things that crane operators can do to ensure that cranes won't blow over in case high winds arise.  The tower cranes so common in the skylines of modern cities can be designed and installed to withstand winds of up to 140 miles per hour (225 km per hour), which would occur during a moderate hurricane.  But the operators have to take certain precautions in the event of high winds.
One such precaution Barth cited was to attach a large weight to the working end of the crane.  With no load, such cranes are only marginally stable due to the large rear-mounted counterweight that compensates for the typical load the crane carries, and so pre-weighting the front adds to the crane's stability.  Another precaution taken by some operators is to release the rotation clutch and let the crane "windmill" in the wind, so that the long front part naturally points in the direction of the wind.  This also places the counterweight in such a position as to oppose the force of the wind and lessens the chances that the crane will blow over.

Apparently, neither one of these precautions was taken with the crane in Dallas.  Both live video shot during the storm and drone video of the accident's aftermath shows that the crane fell over nearly backwards, with the boom partly crosswise to the wind and partly pointing into the wind.  While definitive conclusions will have to await the results of the accident investigation, it appears that no one was on the construction site or charged with the responsibility of taking precautions with the crane if a storm arose. 

Some cities have regulations and licensing requirements for crane operators, but Dallas, in keeping with the general laissez-faire economic atmosphere of Texas, is not one of them.  Such regulations are not guaranteed to prevent crane accidents, as the 2008 crane collapse in New York City that killed seven people showed.  In general, the lawsuits and insurance-rate increases that follow a fatal accident like this can be enough incentive to make crane operators take reasonable precautions, but sometimes leaving safety to the commercial firms isn't enough.  All the regulations and policies in the world won't make a difference if the people on the ground doing the work either get careless, or simply are not told what the safe thing is to do, and get paid for doing it. 

In the case of the Dallas crane accident, either the crane operator or the construction general contractor would have had to pay somebody to be responsible for putting the crane into a safe mode in the event of threatening weather.  In retrospect, the few hundred dollars this might have cost would have been money well spent if it had prevented the accident.  And perhaps Bigge Crane and Rigging has learned its lesson, although news reports say it has been cited some eighteen times by the U. S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the last ten years. 

Such a record may be typical for a large, busy firm with extensive operations in numerous states.  And some of the citations may be for fairly trivial matters, such as mislabeled safety equipment.  But we now know that in at least one case, inattention to crane safety has led to the loss of one life, the injury of several bystanders, the loss of an expensive piece of equipment, and untold damage to property.

There is an aspect to this accident that gets almost no attention these days, but deserves it nonetheless.  It concerns the wider society's attitude toward "lowly" jobs such as construction workers, even those who operate costly pieces of equipment and hold the responsibility for dozens of lives in their hands.  The same thing could be said about airline pilots.  Pilots are respected, treated with deference, and in turn receive good pay and job security, while the operator of a construction crane is unknown to everyone except perhaps his family and co-workers, certainly gets paid less than the lowliest supervisor on the job, and may not know if he has a job at all after the current project is over. 

This situation reminds me of a saying attributed to Lyndon Johnson's Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, one John W. Gardner.  In a 1961 book called Excellence:  Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? he wrote, "The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water."  As a society, I think we both tend to scorn lowly but important activities such as crane operation, and exalt others, not just philosophy (think sports and entertainment?) that don't necessarily deserve such exaltation.  If crane operators and their ilk were more respected, they might feel a little more responsible, and companies employing them might act more responsibly too.

Sources:  I referred to news reports on the Dallas accident from the websites of Channel 5 News at and CNN at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles "303 East 51st Street" for the New York crane collapse and for the quotation about plumbers and philosophy. 

No comments:

Post a Comment