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Regulation help or hindrance?

The USA has finally published its new standards/rules for cranes used in construction. It’s the first update in 40 years and has been welcomed by many as an important move that will save lives. There are though plenty of others who are of the opinion that they will make little difference, apart from increasing costs. – do more rules and regulations make us safer?
 Regulation and standards have been around in some form since the earliest days, initially covering food or weights and measures in order to curb unscrupulous traders. Modern standards, such as those that are used to regulate equipment design, came in with the steam age, along with inspection and certification bodies that tend to go with them. They were driven by the number of fatalities caused by boilers exploding, with the resulting public outcry forcing national authorities to lay down minimum standards and institute third-party inspections or approvals.
More recently we have seen the arrival of standards that lay down safe use and best practice, which aim to enforce a safe way of working, rather than simply demand that equipment is built to be safe. The new crane rules are in the main such a standard, insisting for example that all operators are certified, that all other workers involved are trained and that tower crane components are inspected before erection. 
The US Department of Labor claims that the new rules will save 22 lives a year and the economy over $50 million. Detractors, questioning, quite rightly, how it can arrive at such specific numbers, say that little will really change. They believe that rather than a saving lives and money, it will cost a fortune in third-party training and certification, while distorting the market as companies change their employment practices in order to avoid the direct cost of training.So who’s right? Does the publication of regulations and standards help make the workplace safer or does it simply give the big companies paperwork and formality to hide behind. Another view is that it will add to the good guys costs while the ‘cowboys’ largely ignore it, making them more competitive.
We receive a regular flow of anecdotes about contractors, particularly in the UK, who demand all manner of paperwork and safety inductions to get on site and yet once inside put lives at risk by such practices as pressurising crane operators to carry out a borderline lift or complete a lift when the winds are rising. We also know that the same contractors will rent cranes or platforms from the cheapest corner cutters as long as they have the appropriate paperwork- regardless of how meticulously that paperwork has been put together.
If anything goes wrong of course they can claim that the regulations, standards and best practice were all followed as far as they are concerned and that they have the paperwork to prove it!
Undoubtedly, well written standards or regulations do make a difference, particularly over the long term. The European Work At Height Regulations are an interesting example. Five years on from their introduction they are still widely ignored, or conversely -over interpreted (“ladders are banned etc…”). However there is no question that they have done a great deal to raise awareness of the dangers of working at height, while laying down a clear and consistent framework of rules for companies or individuals to follow – as a great many do. It also means that when an accident is caused by a company cutting corners, prosecutors have more legal ammunition at their fingertips.
The problem comes with badly written standards and rules, which can bring the whole area of regulation and standards into disrepute. The UK tower crane register, for example, simply adds cost and bureaucracy while serving no real purpose – worse than that they provide confirmation to the ‘naysayers’ that regulation and standards are ‘bunkum’ and can be ignored.
Some of the standards currently going through for telehandlers where over-zealous rule makers are trying to solve non-existent problems with rules that may well create real problems as otherwise law-abiding users struggle to get the job done by overriding unnecessary and impractical ‘safety switches’ – thus sending the message that overriding safety devices is OK. Complex overload devices on scissor lifts were another example of this.
So do standards and regulation help save lives? In general… Yes. As long as they are well written and practical. However a bigger problem is that there are still way too many people out there who think that doing something correctly always takes longer and costs more. While others cloak themselves with all the paperwork, certification and awards they can get their hands on while failing to develop a true ‘grass roots’ safety culture among their staff.