During my last moments in the office this week I spoke to a Health and Safety Executive inspector about its ongoing investigation into industrial remote controls. (More of that when I have some time to explain). It’s these kind of conversations that remind me how dangerous our industry can be. For example, the last time I spoke to a HSE inspector at length was about the death of Birmingham, UK-based Clifton Steel Limited employee Ian Milligan on January 17 2002. Milligan was fatally trapped between steel coils whilst using an overhead crane. As always, the accident came to the point of discussion with the HSE years after the actual event, following the release of its report.

Milligan and a safety conscious supervisor, had used a large C hook and a pendant-controlled overhead travelling crane to move a coil to the top of a coil stack, to make it three high.

The stack was not well constructed. Larger coils were placed on top of smaller ones. At one end of the stack restraining chains had been removed from the bottom coils.

He then brought another coil from another stack, so that it was suspended on the crane hook just to the side of this three high stack, at the end from which the restraining chains had been moved. He was standing between the end coil of this three high stack and the coil suspended on the crane hook when the three high stack partially collapsed, pushing the end coil towards the coil suspended on the crane.

I don’t want to tempt fate, but it feels like a long time ago that I received notification (usually they come via news feed to my inbox) of the latest grisly factory crane fatality.

The last reference I made to such a disaster was when the New Zealand Department of Labour revealed more details following the prosecution of Fletcher Concrete and Infrastructure, trading as Stresscrete, which was ordered to pay a record fine of $225,000 for knowingly operating a faulty rail-mounted gantry crane which killed 46-year-old Esera Visesio on March 10 2005.

It was the largest fine in New Zealand legal history for an industrial accident. During the sentencing, Department of Labour lawyer Shona Carr said the company knew there was no failsafe safety switch on the crane, which had a 20t capacity, yet it still used the machine, according to reports from the New Zealand Press Association.

It won’t be the last accident I have to write about and serves as a reminder of the dangerous environment in which we work. There’s a long, long way to go if the guys in sharp suits are going to turn their good intentions (by joining forums, attending conferences etc) into a genuinely safer lifting environment, throughout all sectors of the industry in every corner of the globe. Of course, in some parts of the world there is further to go than others.

But the crane business is getting better at unifying its forces for the common good, as most delegates, speakers and exhibitors at the sixth Crane Safety & Management conference in London this summer agreed.

One speaker at our conference described an accident in which an employee was lucky to survive (even if he will never regain the full use of one of his hands) as “the biggest kick up the arse I’ve ever had” about crane safety. He went on to demand better communication from the industry, and simultaneously hit the overriding issue here right on the head.

Another speaker reiterated the importance of communication, saying “risk can be driven to it’s lowest practical level… by skilled persons and good communication of the plan.”

The first afternoon of the conference concluded with a fascinating presentation by Walter Heinrich, factory and construction crane inspector and Kjell Andersson, crane inspector, (both of Inspecta) on fatigue cracking in industrial cranes.

The devastation caused by accidents was highlighted by Kjell Andersson, who explained an accident at a Swedish steel mill in which a break down on the primary shaft between the gear box and working break led to over 50t of molten steel falling 15m down to the floor.

The broken teeth from inside the gear box (the almost unidentifiable shards of metal weighed over 8kg) were collected and put on show.

The audience agreed almost unanimously that gear boxes are a source of concern and in discovering that the conference had given them a priceless opportunity to dissolve this problem. But agreeing there’s a problem is one thing – sharing it and solving it is quite another.

Keep up the good work.

Richard Howes, Editor