lift of a shipping container

OSHA Limits Vertical Tandem Lifts to Two Empty Containers

A final rule published yesterday by OSHA resolves a long-running rulemaking about vertical tandem lifts, in which dockside cranes move more than one shipping container at a time onto or off a ship. Most container lifts are still single lifts, according to the rule, and VTLs are barred at some ports, but there are cranes in use that can lift as many as six containers configured as two containers high and three across. The rule does not prohibit moving that many at once, as long as no more than two of the containers are stacked vertically and the containers are not connected to the one(s) beside them.

The final rule will take effect April 9, 2009. It says OSHA will allow employers to use discretion in setting safe work zones, but employers should consider where containers will land in the event of tipover or VTL failure and set the zones accordingly. The rule establishes new provisions in the Marine Terminals Standard (29 CFR Part 1917), while the Longshoring Standard (29 CFR Part 1918) incorporates the requirements by reference. "Testing has demonstrated that the interbox connectors required by the new provisions are substantially strong enough to lift two empty containers with a safety factor of at least five," OSHA noted in the regulation.

The rule states that VTLs may be performed only by a shore-based container gantry crane or another type of crane that has the precision control necessary to restrain unintended rotation about any axis, that is capable of handling the load volume and wind sail potential of VTLs, and that is specifically designed to handle containers. Some experts wanted three-container VTLs to be allowed, but OSHA said no, basing the decision on an analysis of the strength of containers, corner castings, and interbox connectors. "However, OSHA has not decided to limit VTLs to two containers simply based on insufficient strength," the regulation states. "The Agency has weighed the evidence in the record and has concluded that, even if the system were strong enough to perform three-container VTLs safely, other factors make three-container VTLs too hazardous."

Two unions, the International Longshoremen's Association and the International Longshore Warehouse Union -- as well as Germanischer Lloyd, the German shipping industry classification society; W.A. Verwoerd, an inspector at the Port of Rotterdam; and former OSHA Regional Administrator James W. Lake --- argued VTLs are unsafe regardless of the weight being lifted.

The agency said limiting VTLs to two empty containers will not create a barrier to trade. It heard from experts, including port crane operators, who said VTL failed lifts and dropped containers are relatively common, but the agency acknowledged no deaths have been reported from those. One section of the rule says at least 100,000 single lifts of containers are made daily in U.S. ports, while only 150,000 to 200,000 VTLs have been made during the past five years.

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