How to Effectively Limit Risk From Human Failure

Learning to operate a crane competently requires the operator to demonstrate skill in real time. The crane industry in North America recognizes the limitations of assessing competence of crane operators using written tests and informal employer evaluations alone without any real-time skill assessment. Despite often arcane educational terminology, competence assessment is a practical way of limiting risk from failures of human performance.

The word "competence" in the skilled trades has suffered a trou­bled past, when it was seen as shorthand for de-skilling. Identifying competence that needs to be taught and then demonstrated on the job allows for high-quality training. When such "standards of com­petence" are well articulated, the instructor can see what technical theory needs be taught; the journeyperson mentoring the appren­tice knows what workplace skills to teach and to what standard; and the apprentice knows what to learn and, ideally, in what order.

Today, it is helpful to focus on the common-sense meaning of competence, which is real-time application of knowledge and skill in a manner that makes safe and economic business sense.

Mistakes of the past

As Vancouver prepared for the 2010 Winter Olympics, a prevent­able crane fatality occurred. An operator was using a carry-deck crane and, while supposedly trained, was stepping in for somebody else to lower loads from the recently completed bridge deck to a cantilevered cycle way built below and to the side of the main span.

The crane tipped and crushed the cab against the concrete crane guide way when a load exceeded the crane's capacity or the opera­tor chose a lower boom angle than he had on previous lifts and exceeded capacity. This preventable fatality was caused by a failure of knowledge and application of that knowledge on the job.

Historically, much of the assessment of crane operators who have engaged in formal state-sponsored certification programs—most usually trade qualification in North America—has relied on multiple choice knowledge tests and accumulation of time in the trade. In British Columbia, prior to the introduction of the practical assess­ment requirement, an apprentice became certified after scoring 70% on a national multiple choice exam and completing 4,500 hours of semi-structured on-job training.

In such a system, excellent mentorship produced excellent skilled operators. However, excellent mentorship is not universal, and an apprentice could be certified without acceptable competence in use of load charts. Practical assessment means such a critical skill gap is identified, and certification is not issued until competence is dem­onstrated upon reassessment.

This is not to say multiple-choice exams have no part in operator assessment, but they cannot be relied upon to provide a full assessment of the skills required for crane operation. A large part of the enthusiasm at the state level for multiple-choice exams is they are easily administered, scored by a computer, and low-cost.

Additionally, take into consideration how those being examined are guided by the right answer presented alongside wrong answers, or "distractors" in testing parlance, in the typical "one question, four possible answers" multiple-choice test. It's a different exam envi­ronment to that of real-time assessment, which is designed to be as close to the conditions of actual on-job performance as possible.

Standards and competence

Competence assessment through practical testing is becoming common in North America. The majority of crane operators trained in North America are now required to pass a practical assessment in order to receive qualification. In Canada, five provinces either have an occupational health and safety requirement for operators to be licensed through practical assessment, or through apprentice­ship programs that require a broadly similar practical assessment. In the United States, four OSHA-recognized certification options are available for crane operators and owners.

Much has been learned through British Columbia's assessment efforts. Once, many prospective operators lacked competence in the use of load charts. Thanks to awareness of this shortcoming and the development of tools to teach use of load charts, this issue isn't at all as it was four years ago. Today, a more common failing is lack of load control. Prospective operators can now read load charts but have not had enough seat time to develop operating skill.

The closer we get to using real-time performance in assessing hoisting equipment operators, the more assurance employers and regulators will have that certification-linked assessment indicates a safe and skilled operator. It's easy to get competence mixed up with jargon, but it really is a matter of common sense.

First, a standard of performance clearly documented and widely available is agreed to by industry and regulatory stakeholders; second, a means of testing that performance in real time is devised; and third, that testing is administered by professional impartial assessors to determine competence. Certification based on those three steps is a powerful tool that will increase safety and skill.

Author: Lee Middleton, Fulford Certification

Source: Crane & Rigging Hotline Magazine, June 2013 Issue


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