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Operator licensing bill fades as session wanes

John Collins, a crane operator for Reynolds Transfer & Storage Inc., Madison, works on a renovation project at Reuther Central High School in Kenosha. Executive sessions were canceled Tuesday on a bill in the Wisconsin Legislature that would require licenses for operators of cranes and some other heavy equipment on public works projects in the state, making it unlikely that the measure will gain passage this session. (Photo by David W. Hoel)

John Collins, a crane operator for Reynolds Transfer & Storage Inc., Madison, works on a renovation project at Reuther Central High School in Kenosha. Executive sessions were canceled Tuesday on a bill in the Wisconsin Legislature that would require licenses for operators of cranes and some other heavy equipment on public works projects in the state, making it unlikely that the measure will gain passage this session. (Photo by David W. Hoel)

By Paul Snyder

Rhode Island contractor David Burnham has worked with heavy equipment for 45 years without an accident.

The owner of Sauderstown, R.I.-based Burnham Excavating Inc. will not attribute his safety record entirely to his state-mandated operating license, but he refuses to downplay its importance.

“When you have a licensing system, you know everyone’s working from the same page out of the same book,” Burnham said. “If you leave it to owners to train their employees, how do I know I’m not teaching someone my bad habits and you’re not teaching someone else your bad habits?”

But despite arguments in favor of licensing, Wisconsin, at least for now, will not follow Rhode Island’s lead. Both Senate and Assembly committees Tuesday canceled executive sessions on a bill that would require operator licenses. The licenses would have applied to people operating cranes, excavators, grinders, shouldering machines, milling machines, planers, graders and scrapers on public works projects.

Lori Whitmore, a staff member for the bill’s Assembly sponsor, state Rep. Joe Parisi, D-Madison, said it was unlikely the bill would have had time for executive sessions and floor votes before the legislative session ends Thursday. She said 18 other states require crane operating licenses.

“There were too many different sides still weighing in on it,” she said. “It was hard to get consensus.”

The bill’s likely death was welcome news to Thomas DeBeck, president of Middleton-based Speedway Sand & Gravel Inc. DeBeck said Burnham’s argument in favor of uniformity ties owners’ hands.

“Why force contractors to not hire the best guys they can get?” he said. “We’re in a free market where competitive bidding is promoted. The contractor should have the discretion to put operators where they should be and can handle the work.”

Rhode Island, the only state that requires heavy equipment operating licenses beyond those for cranes, has required licenses since 1940, said Nassir Sultan, an implementation aid in Rhode Island’s Department of Labor and Training. The state averages 6,400 new licenses a year.

Over the years, more pieces of equipment were added to license requirements, but there was seldom much resistance, said Burnham, who is also the chairman of Rhode Island’s Board of Examiners of Hoisting Engineers.

“It promotes safety,” he said. “We show no mercy on someone doing something stupid, and I think there’s good public awareness of that.”

But improving safety is a hard argument to make in Wisconsin, said John Mielke, vice president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin Inc. He said limiting heavy machinery operator licenses to seven pieces of equipment suggests all other equipment is safe.

“I think anyone that would maintain that it’s about safety would have a hard time doing it with a straight face,” he said. “I don’t think the case has been made that it is about safety.”

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s website, five accidents in the past 10 years were reported in Wisconsin on the equipment targeted by Parisi’s bill. The most recent was an excavator accident in November 2005.

Mielke said a lack of accidents does not mean the industry is safe, but the numbers undermine arguments in favor of the bill.

Owners know who the best employees are for the jobs, DeBeck said. He said he would not, for instance, put an employee familiar with rural territory on a city street job. Wisconsin, he said, needs to let business owners handle their business.

“The best contractors and the safest contractors,” he said, “are the ones that survive.”

One comment

  1. We do not need more regulation in our businesses. It is in the contractors best interest to have qualified operators, they will take care of that themselves. What you would end up with is another layer of beaurocracy sucking up tax money. Another fee put on the taxpayers with no real improvement in the quality of your operators.

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