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Island crane operator applies new device for inspections

A renewed emphasis on crane safety has been a long time coming for James Amphlett, a Mercer Island native, crane operator and business owner.

Amphlett is currently working to develop better crane monitoring technology with equipment commonly used for transportation safety inspections.

Since 1980, he has made his living climbing construction crane towers. Now, he and his wife have a business, Kimaco, that sets up and staffs construction cranes throughout the region. Hired by a general contractor for a project, the company oversees the installation and operation of on-site construction tower cranes. The company presently operates seven cranes at major construction sites within Seattle and King County.

After the collapse of the crane in Bellevue and the subsequent discoveries of cracks in the steel of three other cranes, Amphlett and his friend Eric Manegold have implemented the transportation safety monitoring technology to make the cranes Kimaco operates safer.

Now, Amphlett’s employees will climb the cranes they operate with a hand-held device, called a “Zonar,” to identify and track the condition of key safety points.

“This is when technology meets the common sense built from experience,” Amphlett said. “It just seems like a natural for the crane industry.”

With the hand-held Zonar scanner, an inspector or operator checks points of the crane marked with RFID tags, or radio frequency identifiers. Once scanned, the tags produce the list of specific components that require inspection with 10 possible condition levels to describe each component. With the Zonar, inspectors will produce a “real-time” digital report when they inspect cranes instead of making marks on a paper checklist.

“In order to complete the inspection, every component has to be cleared. You can’t just climb to the top and hit OK for everything because it keeps track of the time it takes to go through the process.” said Manegold. “We want to build the configuration to meet or exceed the industry standard,”

In the 1990’s, Manegold was working in the commercial trucking industry and noticed a lack of care in safety inspections. So he conceptualized a system that digitally verified and recorded inspections that also captured the time of the inspection. This way, the process required the operator to perform a complete inspection of the equipment.

“The paper system is broken,” Manegold said, “and it’s a challenge because the handwriting can be illegible to everyone but the writer. The accuracy can be questionable and the date and time may be incorrect. The list goes on and on.”

Already in use on commercial trucks and some school buses, Manegold told Amphlett of the inspection-scan technology, and they immediately began working together to find a way to apply it to crane inspections.

“Jim is one of the forward-thinkers in the industry when it comes to safety,” Manegold said, “and he excels at getting everyone to do the right thing.”

In 2003, while operating the crane on the expansion of Covenant Shores, Amphlett teamed up with his Mercer Island High School classmate, Chris Tubbs, to help prepare firefighters in crane rescues. Tubbs, now the Deputy Chief of the Mercer Island Fire Department said he and Amphlett work together as often as they can.

Amphlett said cranes are visually inspected every day by the operators as they ascend to work. Then, either the operator or engineers look at a set list of components of the crane every week and month. There is a checklist to record the inspection on paper.

Operators are required by law to keep a record of those inspections, said Elaine Fisher, of the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries

“We check the inspection logs and maintenance records because by law they must keep the documentation of all that,” Fisher said. “But we do not do the actual inspection. Engineers do that and they are required to document it.”

According to Jeff Williams, the vice president of WG Clark, the construction firm building Aljoya House on the corner of S.E. 24th Street and 76th Avenue, the red Coastal crane was inspected after the freezing weather the week after Thanksgiving. He said they found nothing out of the ordinary.

Although there is just one crane on the Island now, at least two more are expected to be erected next year for adjacent projects on S.E. 27th Street and 78th Avenue S.E..

Though he is unaware of any other crane operators or inspectors planning to use the Zonar, Amphlett said Coastal cranes are one of the best out there and is sure the operators and site managers are attentive.

“Everybody is focusing on crane safety right now,” Amphlett said.

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