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Today’s tragic deaths of four workers in the Houston crane collapse at an oil refinery owned by LyondellBasell comes nine years and four days after Milwaukee’s Miller Park crane accident, where three ironworkers died in the collapse of a mobile crane during the lift of a 450-ton steel assembly that was to be part of the baseball stadium’s retractable roof. I had the privilege to represent one of the ironworker widows in the Milwaukee accident, and today’s news brings back memories of that catastrophe, as well as the years of litigation that followed.

Both accidents involved large mobile cranes cable of lifting huge loads and traveling a distance before depositing the load. The crane involved this time was leased from Deep South Crane & Rigging.

The facts are quite uncertain at this time, just hours after the collapse. OSHA is investigating.

Deep South Crane has promised cooperation with the investigating authorities.

News reports indicate that the crane was not scheduled to perform any lifts today, so it is unclear whether the machine was performing a lift or toppled for some other reason. Witnesses are saying that an alarm was sounding, and that workers were scrambling to get out of the way when the crane came down. These heavy cranes are often equipped with alarms to warn when the crane tilts beyond a set tolerance, so this may be what the witnesses heard.

For the families of the four workers killed, and the six other workers who were reportedly injured, the questions will requires a root cause analysis to understand why the crane failed: Was it a problem of manufacturer design, flawed assembly at the site, machine operator error, insufficient ground preparation, weather conditions or something else? Was the accident was caused by acts of fellow workers or by employees of a different employer, thus allowing a tort claim outside the worker compensation system? All of these questions were raised by the Milwaukee accident, and I suspect that similar questions will be raised in Houston.

Hopefully, whatever lessons are learned here will be used to promote safety in work environments involving these huge machines.

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