Raising the Standard for Crane Safety

By Greg Peters

In 2004, the Crane and Derricks Negotiated Rulemaking Advisory Committee (C-DAC) completed its draft proposal for a revised crane and derrick standard for construction. The draft was then submitted to OSHA, where it has languished ever since. Current OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke Jr. has promised that the rule will be published— most likely in October.

The draft standard would create a crane operator certification requirement at the federal level. To date, 14 states have enacted legislation to require operator certification, but federal OSHA regulations contain no such provision. The existing rule for cranes and derricks in construction, codified in 29 CFR Part 1926.550 (Subpart N), dates to 1971 and is based primarily on industry consensus standards published from 1967 through 1969.

To put the need for operator certification into perspective, consider this exchange I recently had with a colleague. “You know,” he said, “when my wife gets her nails done or hair cut, the individual providing the service has to hold a license. Yet, crane operators—who have the ability to hoist thousands of pounds of equipment hundreds of feet in the air—do not have to hold a recognized certification.” Strange, but true.

Based on many different statistics, crane accidents, power line contacts, injuries and deaths occur all too often. OSHA estimates that between 64 and 82 construction workers are killed and 263 are injured working around cranes and derricks each year.

The obvious question is why. After an accident, if you speak with an operator, investigative/review team or any observer in an effort to understand what happened and why, you will often find that the incident could have been prevented. Why, then, do so many crane incidents continue to occur? You can cite the typical laundry list of causes— complacency, pressure to get the job done, wrong equipment, etc.— but in my experience, in most cases, the accident is a result of lack of training.

Getting to the Root of It: Training

ANSI/ASME B30.5 outlines training and qualification requirements of crane operators for the specific type of crane to be operated. The qualifications specified in chapter 5-3 include:

  • meeting physical requirements such as good vision, color vision, adequate hearing, sufficient strength and endurance; depth perception; negative substance abuse test; no physical defects or emotional instability; not subject to seizures;

  • passing a written exam covering operational characteristics, controls, emergency control skills, response to fire, power line contact, loss of stability, control malfunction, and characteristic and performance questions for crane type;

  • ability to read, write, comprehend and use arithmetic and load chart in the language of the crane manufacturer;

  • completion of an operational test demonstrating handling the specific crane;

  • understanding of the B30 standard, federal, state and local requirements.

This national consensus standard has been available for many years, yet the training is not being delivered, at least not on a widespread basis. It may be that the training simply will not be done until industry is subject to enforcement if it is not done. As the statistics show, the current “enforcement” comes in the form of an accident or death. Only then does the employer weigh the options and, in hindsight, ask why more wasn’t done to prevent the incident.

Based on my experience, the crane operator certification requirement is much needed. In my case, my employer had a solid training program in place. Yet, when the state of California enacted a certification requirement, the firm began to prepare operators for the certification exams and found several training gaps that needed to be addressed.

It is important to understand the difference between training and certification. Certification is not what makes an operator safe. What makes an operator safe is the training received before achieving the certification.

The benefits of requiring certified operators go well beyond the level of competence in skill ability and knowledge. For example, in some cases, a firm might qualify for general liability insurance premium discounts for having certified operators. When a crane operator completes a certification process such as that offered by the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators (NCCCO), an employer can rest assured that the operator has been certified by an accredited certifying organization.


What does a certified operator really mean? The NCCCO process has been accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies. NCCCO has gone through psychometric testing and audited recordkeeping, and maintained its defensibility with regard to making sure exams are fair and accurate. The NCCCO process is based on the ANSI/ASME standards.
To complete the NCCCO certification process, a candidate must demonstrate that s/he has successfully met the physical requirements. This can be done in one of two ways:

1) A physical exam form can be downloaded from the NCCCO website (www.nccco.org), printed and given to the examining physician;

2) Crane operators with a commercial driver’s license can use their DOT medical card.
A candidate must complete two demonstrated proficiency phases to become certified—a written exam phase and a practical exam phase. In the written exam phase, the operator would demonstrate his/her technical knowledge of the crane industry as well as of the characteristics related to the crane type for which certification is sought.

For mobile crane operators, certification is available in four specialties or categories: small telescopic (fixed); large telescopic (swing); lattice boom truck; and lattice boom crawler.
All mobile crane operators must take a core exam, which features 90 questions and must be completed within 90 minutes. This exam features four domains:

  • Domain 1: Site (20% of test);
  • Domain 2: Operations (26%);
  • Domain 3: Technical knowledge (28%);
  • Domain 4: Manufacturer’s load chart (26%).

Depending on the type of crane for which certification is sought, the candidate must also pass a specialty exam. Each specialty exam has 26 questions and must be completed within 55 minutes. These exams cover:

  • Domain 1: Site (12% of test);
  • Domain 2: Operations (30%);
  • Domain 3: Technical knowledge (23%);
  • Domain 4: Manufacturer’s load chart (35%).

In addition to the written exam, each operator must demonstrate proficiency operating the corresponding crane type by taking a practical exam. This exam is broken in to four tasks:

  • Task 1: Place overhaul ball in stop circle;
  • Task 2: Follow hand signals;
  • Task 3: Place overhaul ball in barrels;
  • Task 4: Negotiate zigzag corridor with test weight.

Candidates have up to 12 months to complete both exams (which can be taken in any order). Once certification is achieved, it is effective for 5 years, as long as medical compliance is maintained. (It should be noted that NCCCO also offers a tower crane certification and an overhead certification.)


Today’s cranes are engineered to achieve the maximum capacity to be lifted with the lightest amount of weight to be carried down a highway. As a result, the days of “running by the seat of your pants”—that is, of floating an outrigger to determine how much something weighs—are gone. If this technique were used on a modern-day crane, the crane would upset and crash well before the operator knew it was coming.

To ensure safety, an operator must understand the load and the notes on it in order to correctly determine the crane’s net capacity, and to determine whether the weight of the load is under the net capacity allowed. If these procedures are not understood or not performed correctly, the result can be catastrophic.

Finding the Right Training Organization

Many good crane safety trainers are available. However, an employer must do some research to make sure the company is getting what it needs. NCCCO offers a long list of crane training organizations on its website. This list is not an endorsement— the employer must take the time to learn about the training company. The following tips can be helpful in selecting a crane training provider.

  • Is the trainer a certified operator? One cannot expect to be trained at a competent level if the trainer is not certified.

  • Does the trainer offer paperwork assistance? The certification process involves a great deal of paperwork; such assistance can keep it from becoming overwhelming.

  • Can the trainer coordinate the written exam? A trainer cannot administer the written exam, as it would be a conflict of interest. However, the firm can request a chief examiner from NCCCO to administer the written exam at an open test site or at the client’s facility.

  • Can the provider coordinate the practical exam? Often, trainers are also practical examiners. A practical examiner must meet the same requirements as any other certified operator. In addition, this person must also attend a workshop with NCCCO to learn how to administer a practical exam. The practical examiner does not issue the certification or a score (in terms of whether a candidate passed or failed). The examiner’s responsibility is to observe the operator’s ability to control the load and operate the crane.

  • Can the trainer administer the practical exam and if so, where? Consider the value to be received if the candidate can take the practical exam on a crane of which s/he is familiar. The exam process is stressful enough. Requiring the operator to go out of town and be tested on a piece of unfamiliar equipment will merely add to the anxiety level, which may reduce the first-time pass rate.

  • Does the trainer assist with setting up for the practical exam? The practical exam course must be constructed according to NCCCO guidelines, which are specified in the Practical Exam Coordinator’s Handbook. Some organizations can help with this process.

  • Will the trainer help candidates with hands-on operations, such as offering tips on how to control the load (e.g, catching the swing of the load)?

  • What is the pass rate of the training organization? Some trainers guarantee a pass—although few will specify that it may not happen until the fifth or sixth attempt. To truly appreciate a first-time pass, consider that it takes 3 weeks to learn whether a candidate passed. If a candidate fails, another exam must be scheduled and another exam application must be completed at least 2 weeks before the exam date. Imagine if this happens several times. Successive failed attempts may also illustrate gaps in the operator’s knowledge that are not being addressed in training.


A national crane operator certification requirement will certainly lead to safer crane operations. The first key step is to ensure that operators are being properly trained before attempting to achieve certification. This will require some research into provider firms as well as an assessment of training needs.

Quality training organizations will help a company reach the best possible decisions about how to get the most from its training investment. To learn more about NCCCO, visit www.nccco.org. For more information about crane operator certification training, rigger training, overhead crane training or crane supervisor training, visit www.huddlestoncrane.com.

Greg Peters is training director for Huddleston Crane Service in Taft, CA. He has been involved in the mining, construction, crane and trucking industries for more than 20 years. He is a certified crane operator, crane operator trainer, practical examiner and rigging trainer. He participated on the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act Panel regarding the C-DAC draft proposed rule. He is also a member of the NCCCO Written Exam Management Committee.


Contact Us

Customer Service (M-F 8:30am - 5:00pm)
+1 847 699.2929


American Society of Safety Engineers
520 N. Northwest Hwy
Park Ridge, IL 60068