Every employer shall ensure that all persons who use work equipment have received adequate training for purposes of health and safety, including training in the methods which may be adopted when using the work equipment, any risks which such use may entail and precautions to be taken,” according to Section 9, paragraph 1, of the UK’s Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations (PUWER), 1998. The phrase ‘work equipment’ includes hoists and gantry cranes. That is the legal reason why employers need to make sure that their crane operators are competent to operate the equipment they use. In other words they must be given training.

Other countries have similar legislation. There is of course a better reason than legislation. Untrained operators cause accidents. Safety at work must always be paramount.

“That PUWER regulation, together with Section 2.2 of the Health and Safety at Work act 1974, for the UK pretty much stipulates that employers must look at the risks and as far as possible eliminate them. That is where we come in,” says Mike Ray, managing director of family-owned company ACE Trainers, based in Hampshire.

ACE offer courses on telehandlers and overhead cranes, as well as forklifts, plant vehicles and rough terrains.

“We cover the things that a crane operator needs to know – the practical side but also the theory, and the laws and regulations behind crane operations,” says Ray. “We train with generally around five or six students per instructor; 90% of the training we do is on employers’ own premises and is paid for by the employers.”

ACE offers one-day refresher courses for experienced crane operators or two-day courses for novices. “On that course, Day One is in the classroom, doing pretty much all of the theoretical side of crane operation,” adds Ray. “So we will go through Health and Safety, PUWER and LOLER (Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998) obligations, with whatever other regulations that may be applicable to the particular site and operations that the trainee will be working on in his job. There are the Do’s and Don’ts of using a crane – the obvious ones, such as don’t raise a load over somebody’s head, the perhaps less obvious ones like the pre-use checks that must be carried out each time that you start using a crane. We cover the direct risks and the indirect ones; lifting plans, the need to check slings and other equipment as well as the crane itself; and at the end of that day there is a theoretical exam, and also a pre-use exam, that the trainee has to pass. The theory exam has 25 questions; 20 of them are multiple-choice and five are open questions. When they have passed that – the pass mark is 80% – the second day is on the crane, putting all that theoretical knowledge into actual practice.

“We look to see various objects to lift and to lift around. We use differently shaped objects – for example round ones that require choke hitch slinging. We practice lifting sweetly in a safe manner, and also keeping the hook over the centre of gravity. That is the biggest mistake that most people make: they hook something up, fail to consider where the centre of gravity is, lift it up – and it flies off.

“Hand signals are in the training as well; that is part and parcel of using the machine safely with someone else. At the end of the day there is again an exam, this time a practical one, and if the trainee passes, the certificate is awarded.

“Some training companies offer national certification, for example from ITSSAR [the International Training Standards Scheme and Register] or from LEEA [Lifting Equipment Engineers Association].” These are nationally-recognised accreditation bodies; others are AITT [Association of Industrial Truck Trainers, who also certify for cranes and slinging] and RTITB. A certificate from any of these is good evidence that the holder is competent to operate any crane of the type he has trained for, wherever it may be or whoever may own it. In other words, it is transferrable from job to job. “Some training companies tend instead to do ‘in-house’ certification. That certifies that the trainee is competent to operate the crane owned by the company in the particular factory or plant that he has trained for.

“I am a big fan of in-house certification,” says Ray. “Employers like it because it means their trainee cannot simply up and go elsewhere as soon as the employer has paid for his training; I like in-house because it is tailored to the company that the trainee works for and to the job that he will actually be doing. As well as the national minimum he will have had training on the company’s cranes and on whatever it is that that company actually lifts. Anything that he comes across at the company in he will have been taught about.

“As an example, a few weeks back I trained crane operators at a company that makes outboard engines for boats. An outboard has the small propeller at one end and the big heavy engine at the other. So a pallet of lined-up engines looks pretty standard, but all of the weight is at one end of the pallet. If you think the centre of gravity is in the middle you are going to have a bit of a shock when you lift it.

“So what I like about in-house training is that it is tailored. If the operator goes on to another company they should retrain, because at the end of the day they don’t know what the new risks are.”

Wolverhampton-based PLT training offers in-house certification, or accreditation from RTITB and ITSSAR.

“We will train for whichever one the client asks for,” says their sales manager Kath Lang. An in-house certificate, as we have seen, allows the holder to work for a specific company: “It doesn’t matter if the company has got five different sites. As long as they are all branded under the same company an in-house licence is all that required.” RTITB and ITSSAR certificates in contrast are valid nationwide. A certificate from either of them is transferrable between employers, so the holder can change jobs without needing to re-train – though familiarisation with new machinery is still a requirement.

“The RTITB and ITSSAR accreditations do demand a certain number of hours of training, as set out by the awarding body. In-house certification can be done with fewer hours,” she says.

Not surprisingly, accredited course content is similar whoever is the training provider. “Our courses are given by trainers who have teaching qualifications as well as practical experience, and they follow HSE guidelines on what should be included,” says Lang. PLT has 17 instructors on its staff and offer training nationwide. UK demand is roaring back post-pandemic. “Demand is berserk at the moment,” says Lang. “Everyone has come back after a year out of their building and so we need to get people refreshed. Refreshing the certification is good practice every three to five years or if there’s been an accident or a significant change to the machine.”

Mentor FLT Training is based in Chesterfield and provides hoist training under AITT certification. “We also offer LEEA accredited operator training on Electric Overhead Travelling Cranes, including pendant, remote and cab control methods,” says Amy Alton, marketing manager, Mentor FLT Training. “In the UK, the course type is determined by control method rather than lifting capacity. Those wishing to use multiple methods would need to do the relevant conversion courses to convert from one type to another.

“How long courses take depends on a number of factors. Accredited courses must cover set topics and meet pre-determined standards,” she says. “The best training providers will not cut corners, so expect their courses to take longer. A novice will require a longer, more comprehensive course than someone undergoing a refresher; and accrediting bodies will set a maximum number of trainees per instructor. Up to this amount, often the more trainees per instructor the longer the training duration. As an example, a LEEA accredited cab crane course for four novice delegates would take around 40 hours.

“Each course we give includes only trainees at the same experience level, so a novice course would include only novices. And they take place at the customers’ sites. This ensures that operators learn using their own equipment, in their everyday working environment. We find it provides a better trainee experience and reduces the amount of familiarisation that would be needed when returning to site. If trainees do not pass the course at the first attempt, they can usually take one additional attempt before further training would be recommended.” For Mentor too, the gradual return to normal has caused a post-Covid backlog, with demand for training now at unprecedented levels.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Greg Peters is CEO and owner of California-based American Crane Training, which offers training for NCCCO certification, the system set up by the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators to provide standards of training that are recognised by OSHA and nationwide. “They set the standards for teaching, and the syllabus: they tell us what we have to teach,” says Peters. “Our instructors generally teach at the client’s premises. A class can be up to 10 students. They may be complete beginners; they may be people who have some experience of operating the crane under supervision; or they may be apprentices who have been doing other things in the factory and their employer wants them to be able to operate the overhead crane as well. When they leave, they have the federal OSHA certification that would basically allow them to work anywhere in the US.” But gaining the certificate is not the end of the story. “A Gantry Crane certificate allows you to operate a crane of any capacity: the guy would be certified for that, it allows the employer to meet the minimum OSHA regulations requirements; but it is like teaching a kid to drive a car. You wouldn’t want him to drive a Ferrari the day after he passes his test; you would want him to get a fair bit of road experience first. Similarly, just because someone gains a Gantry Crane licence doesn’t mean you would want them operating a 300t overhead crane in a nuclear power plant the very next day. You would still want them to have hands-on task training for that, or for whatever piece of equipment they operate.”

As in the UK, the pandemic did not significantly reduce demand for training. It did however affect training companies’ ability to deliver.

ITI is one of the largest training companies, operating out of Washington state but with centres nationwide. Jonah Hobson is vice-president, of marketing.

“Demand for the training that ITI provides actually never really dipped due to the fallout from the pandemic,” he says. “But because of the pandemic, we were not able to appropriately service that demand. Organizations, and countries for that matter, enacted travel and visitor restrictions that obviously had an effect on live, instructorled training courses, both at client locations and at our training centers around North America.” ITI reacted with imagination: “We were able to get a bit creative and address some of the demand by offering parts of the background information and theory via live, instructor-led web-based training sessions in some cases; but certainly the hands-on practical team-based training that ITI is known for could not be replicated in the web-based format.” But the situation has improved: “As we have collectively learned more about COVID, risk mitigation best practices, treatments, and the advancement of the vaccines we certainly are back to, and in some cases exceeding, pre-pandemic levels. ITI has seen its subscriber base grow significantly over f past two years.”

And ITI has been a pioneer in using Virtual Reality simulators in training: “The ITI VR Crane Simulator now offers nine different crane types,” he says: “We offer Rough Terrain, Lattice Boom Crawler, Overhead (cab operated and belly box), Carry Deck, Boom Truck, Cab Forward RT, Tower Crane, Heavy Lift Crawler, and most recently Polar Crane, a type which is typically utilized in nuclear environments.”

Simulators are a technology whose time has come in this field. CM Labs Simulation has its Vortex Studio Advantage system, which can simulate heavy earthmoving equipment and the like as well as different types of cranes; instructor Gary James is a major fan and advocate.

“People resisting Virtual Reality simulators for training are stuck in the 1990s,” he says. “What other piece of equipment in your business hasn’t been renewed since then?”

One reason he is so forceful for simulators is recollecting his own days of training; which consisted, he says, of “about a year and a half of operating big machines while being screamed at over a primitive cellphone by my boss. The first seven months he yelled out every single movement til I mastered them or got the muscle memory to run the machine. He spent the next year angrily yelling at me what to do with the machine to move it properly.” It was, he says, stressful. “To be fair, even conventional training these days is not like that; even so, there do have to be better ways to teach and learn.”

Simulators now can be considerably more than a screen and a joystick. “I hear all the time that simulators don’t have the same ‘feel’ as the real thing” says James. He disproves it by a hands-on demonstration which he performs blindfolded. He can do it because his CM Labs simulator gives not only visual images on the screen but sensory feedback as well, partly through the resistance of the control levers but also through a seat that tilts, rotates and swings whenever the real-life machine would tilt, rotate or swing. At the simulator – which in his demonstration is mimicking an excavator rather than a crane, but the principle works for both – he transfers a load from A to B with no visual clues at all. “I was getting the exact same feedback in the seat of my pants as the real machine would be giving me. So I am feeling the brake of the swing motor on the excavator, I am feeling the impact of the soil. And that is how I was able to take my vision out of the equation and still show that everything is being fed to me through my body and I could operate the machine through that.”

(Though please note that neither James nor CM Labs advise blindfolding real crane-operators on real job-sites. It is a very long way from recommended practice.)

James is not suggesting that the simulator makes human instructors redundant: “It is important to have the right instructor to supplement what is taught in the simulator,” he says. “We learn how to run or operate a machine through muscle memory and seat movement giving us feedback, but with the simulator we can go outside the box.”

It also helps to break the vicious circle known to all beginners, and most employers, in any business: No-one will hire you til you have experience, and you cannot get experience until you have been hired. Given the current shortage of skilled operators of all kinds, simulator training has an increasingly important role

“And if the young generation coming into the business think the simulator is a video-game, that’s fine,” he says, “Let them call it a video game. They are getting the muscle memory just the same, without even realising it.”

All those youngsters who are currently inseparable from their X-boxes may well be preparing themselves now to be the crane operators of the future.