An overhead kick?

Upcoming EU safety regulations look set to put the boot into the already heavily burdened overhead factory cranes sector.

New European Union rules on crane safety look set to add another burden to an already hard-pressed factory crane industry. With UK sales of overhead factory cranes slowing from their 1999 level of around 2,000 units a year – worth £47m – the last thing the UK’s crane makers want is another set of rules to explain to their customers.

Yet that is what they face under new health and safety standards for cranes currently being drafted to meet the requirements of the EU’s Machinery Directive.

The long-established series of A and M crane classification is about to be swept away in favour of a ‘back to basics’ approach to crane safety. Manufacturers currently design a crane to a specific structural standard (the A rating) and to handle a specific duty cycle or expected pattern of load and usage (the M rating). These ratings give an indication of the crane’s safe working life before it requires an inspection or overhaul.

However, under new provisional EU crane safety standards now being circulated for industry consultation, there will be no reference to A or M ratings. Instead, manufacturers will be required to perform a complete technical and safety analysis on every design to prove it conforms to the requirements of the Machinery Directive.

What this means is that crane buyers will find it more difficult to compare quotes from different suppliers. It will be a particular problem with cranes designed for general workshop use where the customer is less likely to be able to be able topredict what the precise pattern of loads and usage will be. This will put more pressure on manufacturers to explain and justify their designs and prices.

At present, customers who understand the rating system can make an informed decision about the whole-life cost of their crane, balancing initial capital cost against future repair and maintenance bills.

But in theory, there will be no reference to ratings at all in the ‘Provisional European Norm’ standard for cranes, PREN 13001, currently being drawn up to meet the requirements of the Machinery Directive. This is worrying some crane manufacturers. However, PREN 13001 is not yet complete. No fewer than 12 committees representing different areas of the crane industry, are now drafting more detailed specific norms for each type of crane.

This is where the overhead crane manufacturers are expected to exert some pressure to ensure that the standards for overhead cranes will make reference to the existing rating system, probably opting for the ISO version.

This will be important. In an ideal world, all customers would understand crane ratings, says David Williams, secretary of the Overhead Crane Manufacturers’ Association. ‘Usually, the bigger customers do. It’s the small firms who don’t. And that’s where you get problems.’

Williams believes the new EU standards will simply add to the confusion and lack of knowledge. ‘At a guess, perhaps half all overhead crane users have some idea of the concept of the current classification system. But less than 1% have any idea about the new EU rules.’

A typical works engineer only ever buys one or two cranes in his career, says Bill Oliver, operations director of crane maker Morris Material Handling, so they’ll usually have little idea of the expected duty cycle for their crane. ‘What they don’t know is how much general usage the crane will get at lower loads. The problems come in specifying precisely the whole duty cycle.’

Keith Rainford, sales director of Street Cranes, believes one effect of the Machinery Directive will be to encourage further the move towards the condition monitoring of cranes and the automatic counting down of their remaining safe working hours.

Street has already installed condition monitoring systems for one or two enlightened customers in which the crane continuously records the loads it lifts and the hours it works and automatically calculates the amount of available safe working hours remaining.

‘From a value engineering point of view you can no longer afford to build cranes for a40-year design life. It’s far too expensive. Ten years is now becoming the norm. But if you are going to get 10 years’ work out of it, you need to have a very clear idea of what work the crane is doing.’