NSPE Member Knows Crane Accidents Like Few Others

May/June 2016

Communities: Construction
NSPE Member Knows Crane Accidents Like Few Others

Jim Wiethorn, P.E.NSPE member Jim Wiethorn, P.E., isn’t the only person who was interested in construction equipment as a kid, but he is one of a few who developed that interest into a career as an expert in construction equipment failures, especially those involving cranes. Throughout his almost 30-year career, the chairman and principal engineer at Haag Engineering, headquartered in Dallas, has investigated hundreds of crane accidents.

“Still to this day, the thing that sticks in my mind is June 1964,” Wiethorn says. That summer, a 14-year-old Wiethorn, whose father and grandfather both worked in the construction industry, decided to operate his father’s crane with no training or experience. Things went fine at first, but around the fourth time he tried lifting something with the crane it began to tip. “Fortunately, I only had it about six inches off the ground, and I dropped it real quick. From that day forward I had respect for cranes and [was] just very interested in them.”

In addition to investigating hundreds of crane accidents, Wiethorn leads Haag Engineering’s crane group, and last year, he published a study of more than 500 crane accidents investigated by the group between 1983 and 2013. The findings in Crane Accidents: A Study of Causes and Trends to Create a Safer Work Environment can be used by crane owners, users, manufacturers, and standards committees to address problem areas and reduce risks.

Wiethorn hasn’t just worked a large number of cases, but some of the most shocking cases in the industry as well. One of his most memorable was the extremely high-profile 91st Street crane collapse in New York City in 2008. Not only were two workers killed in the collapse, but it happened on the heels of another New York City crane collapse that killed seven people two months prior.

“It was difficult times,” he says. “A lot of the information had been moved around and collected. Any time you [have] a death, police departments are involved. It’s some time before you can get ahold of that data or the physical evidence.”

Because of the difficulties putting all of the pieces together, Wiethorn takes a lot of pride in ultimately coming up with a cause for the 91st Street collapse that was then able to be proven through analysis. “That was a very high point in my career,” he says. “I was very proud and pleased with what we accomplished.”

Even with an interest in construction equipment, Wiethorn could have done other work. But forensic engineering and investigating failures intrigued him because of something he often heard in the construction industry growing up.

“One of the things that got me was I used to always hear, whenever there was an accident, people would always say: operator error,” he says. But, he adds, “there are more people than just the operator involved in a crane accident or involved in a lift.”

After almost three decades on the job, a drive to prevent accidents keeps Wiethorn going. Haag Engineering’s crane group now spends at least 30% of its time on committees, sharing information, and trying to educate the industry on where the problems are and what they need to do to prevent accidents.

“We want to give back to the industry, we want to make it safer, and we want these guys and gals to go home at night,” he says. “If I just did the inspection and a report and went home at night there’s something missing there. Having been in the industry and having seen the families and the tragedies that they go through, if I can give something back to them I think that’s what keeps me going more than anything else and what makes me look harder at a lot of these accidents.”

Crane accident
THE 91ST STREET CRANE COLLAPSE IN NEW YORK CITY IN 2008 KILLED TWO WORKERS AND PROVED TO BE A DIFFICULT CASE FOR WIETHORN AND HIS TEAM AT HAAG ENGINEERING. THE INFORMATION COLLECTED AT THE SCENE WAS SPREAD ACROSS DIFFERENT AGENCIES AND DEPARTMENTS AND HAD TO BE PUT TOGETHER LIKE A PUZZLE. CREDIT: HAAG ENGINEERING