Towering Concerns

It takes more schooling to be a hairdresser than to be certified as a crane operator or crane inspector in Chicago.

Then there's a stack of city of Chicago crane inspection forms showing all of Chicago's high-rise cranes passed during a recent six-month period.

Some crane experts call the city reports unrealistic and incomplete, which raises towering concerns.

More than a dozen people have been killed in tower crane collapses in the past few months, including a deadly accident last week in New York.

On Chicago's Jewelers Row, the foundation under a mobile crane caved in last year. And although no one was hurt, one inspector says it was an omen.

"You will see in Chicago shortly what we are seeing in New York and Florida," said Thomas Barth, accredited OSHA inspector.

Barth is critical of how Chicago city inspectors keep records, like one entry in one official Chicago report that notes work on the "389th floor."

"Their paperwork is very shoddy, not even detailed. I don't know how they do it. It's slipshod work," said Barth.

According to city records obtained by the I-Team under the Freedom of Information Act, Chicago inspectors gave passing grades to virtually every one of the 45 cranes currently on job sites, every week from a recent six-month period. Barth says the one line inspections fail to indicate basic load tests, which show how much weight a crane can hold.

"That's very important. That has to be done. It's mandatory, and there are no records of it," said Barth.

The city's building department contends load tests are conducted, just not shown in the reports. But the city would not provide any proof, maintaining load test reports contain "trade secrets."

Nor would building department officials talk on camera. In a written statement they said: "We have one of the most comprehensive tower crane programs in the United States… It is irresponsible to look at an inspection history and claim our inspections are incomplete."

Construction companies say they also monitor their own cranes.

"They are inspected on a daily basis and a weekly basis and a monthly basis by more than just one person, by individuals who are knowledgeable," said Gary Coleman, Kenny Cranes.

But retired Chicago construction safety manager Suzann Hollis says she has proof city crane inspections have been lax for years - her missing left arm. Hollis was awarded a multi-million dollar settlement after a 1996 suburban accident attributed to faulty equipment and sloppy crane work.

"It grabbed my clothing and pulled me in," she said. "The result was amputation of my left arm, proceeded (to crush) my left torso. There's too much equipment out there that is not completely inspected all of the time."

Crane operators in Chicago are required to pass a written city test but do not have to be trained or even licensed by the state of Illinois as is required by a growing list of other states.

"It's perfectly OK for someone to operate a crane with no training or skill and that concerns us," said Graham Brent, National Commission of Certification of Crane Operators.

"It takes longer to become a hairdresser than to become a crane operator," said Barth.

Seven crane inspectors currently work for the city. All are said to have experience as crane operators. But they are not required to have special training or licensing to inspect cranes.

City officials called the I-Team to say that some cranes do fail inspections but are repaired so quickly that the report cards always show "pass."

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