Construction in any dense urban environment is a dangerous business. Every day in New York City, thousands of fearless men and women perform highly sophisticated activities, often at incredible heights and under the most extreme conditions. A year ago, we were reminded just how dangerous it can be.
Seven people lost their lives when a tower crane collapsed at 303 E. 51st St. Several buildings were damaged, and the surrounding neighborhood was deeply affected, both emotionally and financially.
It is a time for all of us to remember those who perished in this tragic accident. It is also a time to better protect the people who live in communities with construction, as well as the workforce that continues to build the foundation of this great city.
Increasing construction safety depends on three critical elements: a vigorous city enforcement and inspection program, stronger federal oversight and the construction industry’s willingness to be a part of the solution.
At the city level, our inspectors issued more than 14,000 stop-work orders in 2008—a 48 percent increase from the previous year. Shortcuts on the job site will not be tolerated. We all know the results can be catastrophic.
That’s why Mayor Michael Bloomberg, working together with Speaker Christine Quinn and the City Council, enacted 12 new laws to expand oversight of the construction industry. The mayor also devoted $4 million for our groundbreaking study of high-risk construction, and as a result we have begun implementing more than 40 safety recommendations.
In the past year, we’ve added inspectors with more specialized training, and soon each will have a hand-held computer to perform inspections, increasing the integrity of results.
However, construction safety is not just a challenge facing New York City; that is why the role of the federal government is so important.
As a result of two fatal crane accidents here, and dozens of others across the country this past year, we’ve hosted two crane safety conferences with government officials and crane manufacturers from around the world with concerns similar to ours. We’ve urged the federal government to update the national crane standards drafted more than 40 years ago. Cranes frequently travel across state lines and international borders, but there is no national database to track their locations or repairs.
A modern set of crane rules proposed by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a major step toward increasing crane safety nationwide, but local requirements should not be circumvented in the process. In its current form, the proposed rules would trump the laws of any local jurisdiction—even when they are more stringent than the federal program.
This must be amended or local governments would lose their enforcement powers and the construction industry would be left to police itself. OSHA simply does not have enough manpower to enforce regulations regarding the design, erection, maintenance and operation of hundreds of cranes throughout the city. To improve crane safety, there needs to be additional layers of oversight, not less.
And as we continue to raise our standards, we expect the industry to do the same. A year-long investigation into the 51st Street collapse found that the tower crane rigger used four synthetic slings, including one that was damaged, instead of eight chain blocks recommended by the crane manufacturer to raise the tower mast. If these slings were not used, this tragedy could have been prevented.
Industry leaders must make a long-term commitment to integrate safety into every aspect of their projects, from the foundation to the floor installation. Some have already begun to do so—by installing a wind-tracking system on the job site and enveloping soon-to-be skyscrapers in cocoon nets to prevent falling material. The culture of the workforce also must change, just as the use of hardhats once met resistance and now have become the job standard.
The tough economic climate has slowed the pace of construction, and now there is an opportunity for every contractor, every developer and every worker to focus on improving the safety of their work. Builders cannot afford a stalled project these days, but we will not hesitate to stop a job if public safety is compromised.
We all understand the city’s economy depends on construction, but New Yorkers are depending on all of us to make that construction safe. Let’s not let them down.
Robert D. LiMandri is commissioner of the New York City Department of Buildings.
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