May 12, 2005, 9:46PM


Crane law hangs in balance

Rule requiring devices to prevent electrocution likely to be voted on soon


Many construction companies, refineries and chemical plants had no idea Texas had a law on its books for the last 16 years requiring them to install electrocution-preventing equipment on their cranes.

Now they want to get rid of it.

The Texas Senate has agreed with the industry, voting last month to dump the law that required insulating devices on cranes. The bill, introduced by Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, and Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, is expected to be considered by the House before the legislative session ends this month.

The industry argues that current federal safety regulations, which require cranes to be kept a certain distance from power lines, are sufficient. And until the federal regulation changes, the Texas law is unnecessary, they contend.

But don't try to get that argument past Jennifer Moore. Five years ago, her 21-year-old son was electrocuted when the crane he was working on near Conroe touched an electric wire and sent 7,200 volts through his body, more than three times the voltage used to kill a person in the electric chair.

He is one of as many as 36 workers and as few as 10 workers, who, each year since 1992, have died as a result of a crane coming into contact with electric current, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Moore, a homemaker who lives in San Antonio, has spent the past several months telling her son's story to legislators in Austin in hopes that they wouldn't scrap the statute.

"It's an uphill battle because the big energy companies, the big construction companies and the big chemical companies want to get rid of the requirement anywhere, anyplace in Texas," she said. "They don't want to have to use insulating links on their cranes."

Settlement paid

Joseph Alexander, a trial lawyer with Mithoff & Jacks who represented the Moore family, said he believes an insulator would have prevented Moore's death. The construction company eventually paid $4.25 million to the Moores to settle the case.

"The crane industry doesn't want to pay to put the insulator on," said Alexander, who has testified with Moore before the Occupational Safety and Health Administration about the need for tough federal regulations on crane safety.

But Don Jordan, Houston operations manager for private training company Crane Inspection and Certification Bureau, argued the insulators on the market aren't big enough to handle some of the big cranes.

And the devices only protect the operator touching the load. It doesn't protect the people on the ground or leaning against the crane, he said.

Insulators also give operators a false sense of security, said Peter Hovanesian, administrative manager at Scott Macon Equipment Services, which rents cranes in Houston.

They think: "Oh boy, we've got an insulating link. We don't have to follow the OSHA regs, and we can get as close to the live wire as we want," he said.

'Didn't seem that expensive'

Sixteen years ago, the Legislature sought to reduce the number of electrocutions by requiring crane operators to install a protective device.

"It didn't seem that expensive," said former Texas Sen. Carl Parker, who proposed the legislation. "I don't recall any opposition."

But no agency was ever put in charge of enforcing the new law, which carries a criminal penalty of up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000, so companies that use cranes routinely ignored the regulation. And many weren't aware of it until the Chronicle published a story two years ago.

"I've never seen one," said Ronald Witt, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 450 in Houston, when asked about the use of insulators on cranes.

"If you are leaning up against the crane, and the crane swings and touches a high wire, you're a gone sucker," said Witt, who represents crane operators. "You're dead. That's it."

Insulator inventor

For nearly the past decade, Hugh Pratt has been beating his head against the wall.

He invented an insulator he got the idea one day in church and signed up American Crane & Rigging as his Texas distributor.

Over the past year, they've held seminars to tell companies about the law and its requirements.

The sign-in sheets read like a who's who of the energy and construction industry: Shell Oil, Zachery Construction, Centerpoint Energy, Oxy-Chem, Lyondell-Citgo and BP.

"Plants and large facilities are usually compatible with applicable state and federal laws," said Walt Lewicki Jr., vice president of American Crane. But, he said, "we have had more opposition to this particular product than we ever anticipated."

American Crane has sold a few of the devices. But for the most part, there has been unified resistance.

Companies are reluctant to put insulators on cranes in Texas because they're worried they'll get sued when a worker in a state that doesn't require them is electrocuted on an unprotected crane, Pratt said.

The first question would be why all the company cranes aren't insulated.

The devices aren't cheap. Pratt's Load Insulator runs about $6,500 and has a 20-year life. The devices can also be rented for about $450 a week.

OSHA is expected to eventually require companies to install insulators. An OSHA rule-making advisory committee is preparing an analysis to assess the effect on small businesses.

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 Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle


May 14, 2005, 1:16AM


Remote-controlled train derails

Though system is ruled out as the cause, accident revives concerns about technology


An 11-car train derailment involving the use of a remote-controlled locomotive early Friday has revived safety concerns regarding the use of such technology in Houston.

The cause of the derailment, which occurred at a west Houston Union Pacific rail yard, remains under investigation. A Union Pacific spokesman said the remote control technology already has been ruled out as the culprit but did not elaborate.

There were no injuries or environmental damage caused by the derailment.

"This is even more reason to oppose remote-controlled locomotives," said City Councilwoman Carol Alvarado, whose district includes Houston's East End and other areas where railroads are prominent fixtures.

The City Council and Harris County Commissioners Court passed nonbinding resolutions in 2004 opposing the use of remote-controlled locomotives on public streets, highways and bridges.

"As this resolution was considered, Commissioner (Sylvia) Garcia's first concern was if remote-controlled railcars are allowed, the most stringent federal, state and local laws should be applied and be strictly enforced," said Mark Seegers, a spokesman for Garcia.

Remote-controlled locomotives use a radio transmitter and receiver system to control the train. Railroads use the technology within rail yards, but some do travel over city intersections near industrial plants , according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

In 1994, the FRA began investigating the use of remote controls and the accidents, injuries and safety concerns that arose from their use.

An interim report, issued by the agency in May 2004, states that nearly all of the accidents or incidents involving the use of remote-controlled locomotives have been caused by human error. A final report is due out later this month.

In a separate analysis, FRA researchers found that from May 2003 through November 2003, the accident rate for remote-controlled trains was 13.5 percent lower than conventional switching operations during the same period, the report states.

The FRA issued guidelines on the use of the technology in 2001. The major railroad companies, including Union Pacific, have adopted them, the report states.

Terry Briggs, chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers legislative department, said the guidelines are voluntary and without teeth.

Unlike the remote control operators, human engineers can detect when a train's wheels slip and hit railroad ties, Briggs said. The engineer can take corrective action to avoid a derailment, but a remote-controlled system can only detect a decrease in speed when such a slip occurs, he said.

"The remote-controlled locomotive system will go to maximum throttle to make up for the loss in speed, and that's what makes the accident much worse," Briggs said.

Mark Davis, a Union Pacific spokesman, said there was no indication the remote control system was at fault in Friday's derailment. The 11-car derailment occurred about 2:20 a.m. at Union Pacific's Inglewood yard at Liberty Road near North Wayside, Davis said. He said the operators were moving 37 rail cars when 11 fell off the track.

The derailed cars included six empty cars, three hauling liquefied petroleum gas and two carrying butadiene, a chemical used in rubber manufacturing.

There were no leaks and the rail yard was cleared up by 5 a.m., Davis said.


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  Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle


May 14, 2005, 8:09PM



HISD's superintendent learned the hard way that privatization of poorly performing high schools was easier said than done.

NEWLY hired Houston Independent School District Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra announced in February that the district would take applications from interested parties to manage three high schools rated academically unacceptable by the state. The announcement provoked protests from parents and community leaders opposed to outsiders running their schools.

Three months later, after collecting proposals from groups both inside and outside the district, Saavedra determined none of the nondistrict entities were acceptable managers for the troubled schools. He will keep the current principals at Sam Houston and Yates while looking within the district ranks for a new principal at Kashmere. The superintendent declared that the schools will be "reconstituted" by replacing large numbers of teachers.

According to the superintendent, reconstitution means all employees at a school will have to reapply for their jobs, and the principal would then decide who stays and who leaves. In the case of Sam Houston, he estimates as many as half the staff could be replaced. He described reconstitution "as probably one of the most powerful things that you can do in redirecting any school. It's also one of the more difficult things to do."

Saavedra did hold out the prospect that one non-HISD group, the KIPP Knowledge Is Power Program, will have a year to win over parents for a system of charter schools within Yates and its feeder system. He also hopes to use Teach For America first-year instructors and private educational consultants to boost the quality of classroom teaching at the high schools.

In announcing the latest plan, Saavedra found himself under criticism from teacher representatives. Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon charged the superintendent with scapegoating her members for years of poor administration at the high schools.

Since the district can fire teachers only for cause, most of the instructors rejected from Yates and Sam Houston will probably wind up assigned to other schools. If they were the cause of the low student test scores at their current posts, then the district will simply have relocated rather than solved its academic problems.

Fallon predicts many teachers will apply to suburban districts to make sure they are employed next year. "Saavedra didn't find private venders," she said. "Now he's going to face the situation of not being able to find teachers."

By not adequately preparing the community for his school management proposal, Saavedra created unnecessary controversy. The timing of the reconstitution announcement shortly before the end of the school year has had the same impact on teachers and their representatives.

Likewise, the district quickly backed off a proposed change to eliminate math and science requirements for high school juniors and seniors. Saavedra says he will form a committee to consider the issue. It shouldn't take them long to decide that in an increasingly technological world, HISD students need more upper-level math and science courses, not fewer.

Now that the district has decided to use its own managers to fix the low-performing high schools, they should move swiftly to produce results. No one should tolerate public schools that fail to educate their students.


 Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle