Md. crane accident raises safety issues

The Baltimore Sun

A construction worker died yesterday after being crushed in a crane high above a building site near Annapolis in an accident that comes as state officials are looking for ways to tighten safety regulations for such heavy equipment.

The laborer, identified by police as Denis Umanzor, 44, of Silver Spring, was killed while working at Annapolis Towne Centre, a $400 million residential, office and shopping complex under construction in Parole. Although authorities have yet to determine what went wrong, a portion of a crane apparently came loose and pinned Umanzor as it was being dismantled - a step described by experts as particularly risky.

Police and fire rescue workers were called about 9:15 a.m. to the Parole construction site, where a project foreman had reported a worker trapped 200 feet in the air. Rescue workers found the man was dead by the time they reached him. It took an hour and a half to free his body and bring it to the ground.

The incident comes about six weeks after fatal crane collapses in New York and Miami. In response, a Maryland committee for weeks has been exploring options to tighten crane regulations for the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health agency, state officials said.

Labor and Industry Commissioner James R. "Ron" DeJuliis, a former crane operator, said he has been worried about crane safety since he took his position last February. He said 50 inspectors were sent out last week to a training site to learn more about safety related to cranes.

"It's very dangerous for everyone concerned," DeJuliis said of working on cranes. "You're up in the air, walking around on steel."

Roger Campbell, assistant labor commissioner in charge of the occupational safety agency, added, "We have been particularly concerned about the erection and disassembly of tower cranes. That's the most hazardous time, when you're putting it up and taking it down."

One rule change being considered, Campbell said, would require contractors to notify the state when they plan to set up or disassemble a crane.

Maryland is one of at least four states to take steps to improve construction site safety after the crane accidents in New York and Miami.

A 20-story crane toppled at a New York City work site March 15, demolishing a four-story town house and killing seven people. Ten days later, a section of a crane fell 30 floors and smashed through the Spanish-tiled roof of a two-story house in Miami, killing two and injuring five.

The incidents spurred legislatures in Florida, Washington and Indiana to consider strengthening safety and training standards, according to news accounts.

Dennis O'Rourke, president of the Crane Certification Association of America, a safety and training group based in Vancouver, Wash., said tower cranes are simple and reliable, but a lack of standardized and appropriate training in working with them has occasionally proved fatal.

Most tower crane accidents occur when they're being extended in height - as in Miami and New York - and when they're being dismantled or lowered, O'Rourke said.

The causes for accidents during those phases can include the improper attachment or detachment of the large sections of the crane, improper use of tools and failing to follow the sequence of procedures prescribed by the manufacturer, O'Rourke said.

"What I have seen about other tower crane accidents [is that] the errors made were very fundamental, not technical. They should not have been done, and it smacks of very poor apprentice training," O'Rourke said. "To eliminate these types of problems we've been talking about, we need to start thinking about putting in place regulations that don't just say what to do, but how to do it."

Umanzor's death was the seventh construction site fatality statewide this year. Twenty-two people died in such incidents last year, down from 44 the year before. None was crane-related, officials said.

Two accidents occurred at the Annapolis Towne Centre site last year. In April 2007, a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. crew leader was hospitalized after receiving a 15,000-volt jolt through his hands. Also that month, a 25-year-old worker was injured when a 15-foot scaffold collapsed.

Umanzor worked for Miller, Long & Arnold, a subcontractor working under Bozzuto Development Corp. on the 208-unit Mariner Bay apartment complex. He was described by a Bozzuto executive as a "longtime employee" who had been part of a crew responsible for erecting, dismantling and maintenance of tower cranes. Attempts to reach relatives were unsuccessful.

Executive Vice President Toby Bozzuto said in a statement that the company was "tremendously saddened about today's accident. Our hearts and thoughts go out to this employee's friends and family. ... We work every day to ensure that our construction sites are safe and secure places of work, and we will continue to do so, now with an even stronger commitment."

Officials in Miller, Long & Arnold, a Halethorpe branch of the Bethesda-based Miller & Long Concrete Construction, did not respond to requests for comment.

"We hired them because they are the experts" in crane operation, Lauren McDonald, a spokeswoman for Bozzuto, said of Miller, Long & Arnold.

Employees attend weekly mandatory "Toolbox Talks" that are translated into Spanish and cover site-specific and general issues, that company's Web site states.

Miller, Long & Arnold has been cited for safety violations twice in the past three years, according to U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration records. The records show that a complaint was lodged against the company in 2005, prompting a $4,225 fine. And in February 2007, they were fined $825 for a construction safety violation found during a planned inspection.

Safety and health officials visited the Towne Centre site three times last year, uncovering five citations, according to the state occupational safety office. None was crane-related, and Miller, Long & Arnold was not among the companies cited.

Workers from a nearby takeout pizza shop, fondue restaurant and bank, accustomed to hearing the racket of bulldozers and groan of cranes at the construction site, knew something had gone wrong when there was silence a little after 9 yesterday morning.

One of the project supervisors on the site, who declined to give his name, looked from his pickup truck as rescue workers pried a colleague out of the arm of the crane high in the air.

He watched through a pair of binoculars and muttered over and over, "A man died here today."

Sun reporter David Zenlea contributed to this article.

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