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Is It a Crane or a Tow Truck?

Rotatorcrane 10f20By Brian J. Riker

Since rotators were first introduced to the towing industry, there has been an ongoing debate about what they are and what you can do with them. Better awareness of Occupational Safety and Health Administration compliance and operator certification in the towing industry has come just in time as OSHA has the towing industry in its sights.

A rotator is not a crane; never has been and never will be. They are not built to comply with the strict standards set forth by OSHA. If they were, their lifting capacity would be reduced so much that they would be all but useless as a recovery vehicle. When used in response to a wrecked or disabled motor vehicle, tow trucks and rotators are exempted from the regulations and operator certification requirements of cranes.

That said, many towers still use rotators on construction sites as a substitute for a traditional crane. This is attractive to the construction company since rotators can usually operate in more confined spaces and usually come at a much lower price point than a traditional crane with the same lift capacity. The usage of rotators as cranes has drawn the attention of the crane industry as well as OSHA.

On Nov. 8, 2018, with an enforcement date of Feb. 7, 2019, OSHA published a final rule regarding updated crane operator standards. This revised standard continues to require the use of trained crane operators, as well as adding a requirement that employers evaluate their competency.

Just like having a drivers license may not mean you are skilled enough to operate all vehicles, having a crane certification does not mean you actually know what you are doing.

OSHA has issued guidance on enforcing this new standard, calling for compliance assistance education by its inspectors during the first 60 days, but only to employers that have shown good faith efforts to properly and timely evaluate all their crane operators.

"But, you said a rotator is not a crane; so why do I have to comply?"

The short answer is that no one is looking at the design specifications of rotators, yet; but they are looking for operator cards and documentation of employer evaluation. Any time you use any of your tow trucks or rotators to lift anything other than a disabled or wrecked motor vehicle or spillage from an accident, you are performing a crane service lift and the operator must be qualified.

I know it is a Catch-22 situation for many. Towing is a tight margin industry with the average towing company only making a 5 percent to 8 percent annual return on investment. We need to continually look for alternate sources of revenue, especially sources that will pay for perhaps the most expensive piece of equipment in the fleet. Combine this with more and more agencies mandating the availability of rotators to be included on police rotations and I see why crane work appeals to owners.

As a compliance specialist all I can do is inform you of the changing regulations and urge you to comply. For some that will mean obtaining the proper training and performing the required evaluations. Others will stop doing non-automotive lifts with their equipment. That decision is yours alone to make.

A few key notes about crane operator training and certification. If your state requires a specific license this updated standard does not affect that program. Additionally, operators in states without a specific licensing standard are still required to be trained and certified by an accredited organization or qualified employer program. As always, this certification or licensure must be provided to employees at no cost.

Certification or licensure alone is no longer compliant. The employer still must provide an evaluation of the operator's actual skills, including their ability to read and understand the written operating instructions for their specific equipment. This evaluation must be documented and performed by an individual that is competent and experienced in the operation of the specific type of crane being operated.

In addition to training, certification and evaluation of newly hired crane operators, all operators must be reevaluated anytime retraining is deemed necessary, usually after an incident or near miss event.

These evaluations are not portable; they don't follow an experienced operator when they change jobs. In addition, one operator employed by multiple companies cannot be deemed qualified if only one employer has evaluated their skills. The good news is that employers do not have to reevaluate any crane operator that was in their employ on or before Dec. 10, 2018, if they had previously evaluated their skills. All operators hired after this date must be evaluated prior to being permitted to operate any crane unsupervised.

The full requirements can be found in OSHA Standard 1926.1427.

Brian J. Riker is a third generation towman and President of Fleet Compliance Solutions, LLC. He specializes in helping non-traditional fleets such as towing, repossession, and construction companies navigate the complex world of Federal and State transportation regulatory compliance. With 25 years of experience in the ditch as a tow operator Brian truly understands the unique needs and challenges faced by towing companies today. He can be reached at brian.riker@fleetcompliancesolutions.net
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As towers continue to diversify, the line between emergency tow operations and general trucking becomes very blurry. Join American Towman's Contributing Editor Brian J. Riker for his seminar, "Motor Carrier Compliance and the Tow Company Fleet." Riker will explain some of the key differences between operating a traditional towing company and a full-service trucking company. This seminar will take place during Tow Industry Week at its new location, the Westgate Paradise & Pavilion in Las Vegas, Nevada, May 14-15, 2020.

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