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

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.

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