What it’s like to ride a construction crane—and what’s being done to prevent a repeat of the Kelowna tragedy

The tower cranes hovering over B.C. cities have loomed even larger since one toppled in Kelowna last summer, killing five workers. How are business and government keeping operators safe?

Credit: Adam Blasberg

Remi Coupal, co-owner of Coupal Climbing Cranes, stands below one of his company’s mighty machines

The tower cranes hovering over B.C. cities have loomed even larger since one toppled last summer, killing five workers. How are business and government keeping operators safe?

We are standing in the mast of a tower crane, about 55 metres up, and the day is glorious—bathed in warm, late-summer sun with nary a breath of wind. I’m sure that if I had the courage to look, the view is also spectacular, but right now, I am concentrating on the task at hand, climbing the full 80 metres—the height of a 20-storey building—to the top of this beast.

Actually, I’m concentrating on catching my breath. My watch says we’ve been climbing for 12 minutes (which means climbing for six, resting for six), and I am well past warmed up. I’m wearing a fall-protection harness that weighs as much as a midsized dog, and clownish size-12 work boots, which I borrowed because nothing in my size-10.5 wardrobe has steel toes. So I am prepared and, at the same time, unprepared.

…and then, suddenly, the mast starts to twist. I’m not talking full, dangerous corkscrew twisting, but the crane, which had been quiet till now, has just picked up a big load and has started shifting sideways, triggering a counter-rotation in the mast—a dull creak and a perceptible torque that I wasn’t expecting and am not enjoying. Feigning nonchalance (OK, trembling in body and voice), I look to my guide, Remi Coupal, and say, “Is it supposed to do this?”

Remi and his brother, Doug, are co-owners of Coupal Climbing Cranes, the Port Coquitlam–based company their dad, Val, started in 1974. So Remi is beyond casual. He climbed his first crane when he was 11—he started going up in the evenings to help Val with maintenance and repairs—and remembers being “terrified” on that first occasion and frightened a few times since. 

But not this time. I take it as a kindness that he doesn’t laugh at me. Instead, he launches into a colourful description of how wonderfully bendy these cranes can be. They shake and shudder in high winds, and they seem to bow right down, pointing nose to ground, when they’re load-testing at the end of their range. And if something goes wrong and the crane drops a heavy load unexpectedly, the recoil can send the whole thing into shivers.

Heightened risks

What tower cranes don’t do, generally, is fall down—at least, not once they’re in place. Like the birds from which they take their names, cranes may seem frail and ungainly—teetering on one leg—but the record shows them to be surprisingly robust. “There are literally thousands of cranes operating in North America, and accidents are few and far between,” Coupal says. 

WorkSafeBC reports that, with a steady 265 to 300 tower cranes operating in B.C., there were 48 “incidents” in the decade from 2011 to 2020, but no collapses. And the last death that had been reported among all crane types in the province involved a mobile crane working on a SkyTrain construction project site in 2000.

The collapse of a tower crane in Kelowna this past July shattered that long, safe record. “It was pretty traumatic for the whole industry,” Coupal says, and while he didn’t know anyone involved, the loss felt particularly close. Similar to the Coupal family operation, Wolfram Stemmer, who founded the crane company in Salmon Arm in 1991, had two of his sons working for him. Both were among the five men who died in the accident.

Investigations into the Kelowna collapse were ongoing at the time of writing, but there has been a large amount of speculation as to what might have gone wrong. Indeed, within 24 hours, there was a belligerently critical YouTube video that actually included Instagram-sourced footage of the crane’s operation on the day of the accident.

What’s known for sure is that the accident occurred not during normal crane operations but in the preliminary stage of dismantling. Tower cranes have a functional free-standing limit of about 80 metres (265 feet). Beyond that height, they must be supported within a building or strapped to its exterior, as the Kelowna crane was.

Then the cranes themselves can “climb.” They have a hydraulically activated frame that encircles the mast, pushing up far enough to make room for additional sections which are hoisted up by the crane itself, tucked into the gap and bolted into place—or removed and hoisted back down. The Kelowna crane had already completed its work on the building and was climbing down—the crew removing sections one by one—when the whole boom toppled over and crashed to the ground. 

This, again, is the likeliest period for an accident—when the crane is climbing—or when it’s being set up or taken down, with a second, mobile crane lifting or lowering huge boom sections that have to be positioned perfectly and bolted into place.

Surprisingly, then, these higher-risk erection and dismantling processes are also the least regulated parts of B.C. crane operations. Frank Carr, who has been a business rep for the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) since the year 2000, says the crane industry had a long history of being self-regulated. But after a flurry of accidents, the provincial government set up BC Crane Safety in 2005 as a certification and licensing authority—funded with industry dollars collected through WorkSafeBC. Now every crane operator in the province must be certified before they climb into a high-flying cab.

But there is no similar standard for those assembly crew members who spend their days in the wind and the rain trying not to find out why the gap between the jib (the front part of the horizontal boom) and the mast is called the “bite.” Carr says the IUOE has been lobbying for new regulation for years, but he acknowledges that it’s complicated. The industry used to be dominated by a handful of large crane rental operations, like Coupal. But in recent years, more of the big construction companies have been buying their own cranes and running their own crews. And the equipment and processes can vary widely from one crane to another. 

BC Crane Safety executive director Clinton Connell also stresses the complexity of the task. The assembly and dismantling work is “highly specialized—it’s 100-percent a skilled trade,” Connell says, adding that it often involves engineering technicians or full-blown engineers with a background in mechanical or electrical. But, Connell says, “The bulk of the training happens on the job or through the manufacturers.” 

There’s no course to be had at the local community college, so it’s difficult for a regulatory agency to establish and enforce rules that might apply fairly across the whole industry. But Carr and Connell both say they expect the Kelowna crash may result in some positive regulatory adjustment. “Whenever there is an incident of that magnitude, there is likely to be some change,” Connell says. 

The other regulatory area that is ripe for revision is on the ground rather than in the air. Aside from being a high-risk activity, tower crane assembly and dismantling can also be highly disruptive. You need a huge mobile crane, capable of lifting jib sections that can be as long as the mast is tall. And you need a staging area where trucks can pull in and unload the crane sections and the crew can organize all the parts. That means shutting down busy streets, which municipal governments are inclined to resist, allowing only the smallest amount of space for the shortest period of time. As a result, Carr says, crews wind up cramped and hurried, raising the stress level and, potentially, increasing the likelihood of an accident.

But that, too, seems about to change. The City of Vancouver is working with the IUOE and BC Crane Safety on a pilot project that will give crane companies more time and space—and a greater opportunity to work with municipal officials to make sure everything is well planned. “I have to commend the City,” Carr says. The project has already increased Vancouver’s administrative workload “dramatically.” But even before the Kelowna event, Carr adds, City officials were working hard on the changes. They’ve also indicated a willingness to share any lessons from the pilot project with other jurisdictions through the Union of BC Municipalities.

A steep cab ride

Back in the mast, Coupal and I start climbing again. This particular crane has seven mast sections that are a little over six metres tall and eight sections that are about 5.6 metres, but while the ladders in the longer sections are canted at a comfortable angle, in the shorter sections, they are straight up and down. It’s hard keeping the clown boots from costing me a step.

When we reach the “ring gear,” the turntable on which the crane pivots, we call to the operator to hold still while we climb through—the better not to get crushed, Coupal says. Then we’re out onto the deck of the counter-jib, the back section of the boom that holds the winch engines and the huge concrete counterweights that keep the crane stable when it’s hoisting heavy loads. 

The great thing about the counter-jib is the solid, brushed steel decking and the nice high railings. If you don’t look straight over the side—and really, why would you?—it’s just like standing on the big balcony at your friend’s 20th-floor condo, although this one keeps whirling about like a carnival ride with a greater sense of purpose.

Coupal distracts me with a couple of other crane stories and then leads us over to stand by the operator’s cab, where the decking is a see-through steel mesh. Less reassuring. But peering into the cab itself is even more vertiginous: there is nowhere to look but down.

On the fun side, the cab is set up like the best-ever video game, with two joysticks and foot pedals: to swing the crane on its axis, to move the trolley in and out on the jib, and to raise or lower the hook. You need soft hands for this work—as measured by sensitivity, not calluses. Whether you’re moving a load sideways by rotating the jib, or moving it in and out on the trolley, the force applied at the top exhibits itself very differently 80 metres below. If you  move too quickly, the load will swing past its intended destination—and then swing back the other way, endangering people and material.

And did I mention: 80 metres is a long way down. Looking from the top of the cab, you get the same view as the operator, who stares between his own feet through the glass floor at a worksite in miniature. On the ground, and in his ear, is the “rigger,” the other half of the crane team, hooking loads, hustling to their destination, and then guiding and unhooking before readying the next movement. 

It’s a complicated and precise dance—often requiring two riggers when the project area is too large to move around, or when the operator is moving building materials up a tower and needs one person on the street and another in the building itself. And even with the best rigger(s), you need great depth perception. Looking straight down from that distance, it’s incredibly difficult to tell how close a load is to the ground—and easy to imagine how stuff could get broken.

Of course, in addition to modern communications equipment, new cranes are full of protective sensors and electronics that do things like lock out loads that are too heavy. The Coupal cranes were also the first in Canada to use the latest collision avoidance system, which prevents crane jibs or hook lines from bumping when multiple cranes are working in close proximity. (Coupal had 12 on the Olympic Village site at the time.)

Then again, the Coupals have always been innovators. For example, Val was the first person in town to have a phone in his cab—not a cell, but a landline that he wired himself because the technicians from what was then BC Tel wouldn’t climb the mast. As the boss of a growing company, he used it to make deals when the work was slow.

After we climb, carefully, back down the mast and shed the layers of personal protective equipment, Remi picks up a phone call. It’s Val, long retired but going strong. Turns out that he’s just bought a big new fridge that doesn’t fit through the door of his kitchen. Of course, it’ll fit fine through the slider on the back deck; Val just needs a crane to get it there…sending Remi off to his next job—one more Coupal innovation.