Gotham Gazette

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Safety on Site -- or In Sight?

The buildings department just might be Mayor Michael Bloomberg's brooding, dark shadow -- he can't seem to escape the destruction that plagues it.

Already in the first six months of 2008 the city has seen more fatalities at construction sites, 15 to be exact, than it did in all of 2007, Bloomberg said at a press conference last week. Just two days after that press conference, the city's top crane inspector was accused of taking bribes to allow cranes to pass inspection.

Although the mayor is credited with reworking the Department of Buildings -- within the past six years the number of inspectors has climbed 66 percent -- the fatalities have brought the department's alleged dysfunction back to the fore.

Even industry professionals, some of whom balked at additional reforms to the department after an exhaustive review of the building code earlier in the Bloomberg administration, have come around, saying that two crane accidents in three months calls for serious change.

Last week Bloomberg, with members of the City Council and the acting buildings commissioner, Robert D. LiMandri, tried again. A package of more than a dozen legislative proposals -- some of which were introduced at the City Council following the first accident in March -- was announced in an attempt to promote safety as the city continues to experience a building boom.

Industry professionals and observers have already debated those proposals, which range from crane safety to the qualifications of the buildings commissioner. But more dialogue is sure to come.

The Proposals

Since the city's first crane accident this year, there have been eight bills introduced at the City Council regarding construction site safety. Some of them were included in the package the mayor revealed last week.

The legislation intends to enhance safety at construction sites, but not halt construction, said Bloomberg. While safety is the city's first priority, the city will continue constructing skyscrapers and transit hubs.

"Our priority is not to balance two competing forces: economic development and safety," the mayor said. "It is, it has to be, safety -- safety of construction workers, safety of the public. No compromises and no excuses."

A key part of that effort, city officials said, is a revision of how the city tracks general contractors. In addition to the building permits contractors must obtain for each site, the city would now require every contractor to register for a safety control number, which would allow the department to track contractors across sites, including by who their principals are. That way, if one developer is an officer at several general contractors, the city can determine, the safety records of all of them. This step, officials said, will force contractors to embrace safety practices, instead of treating city violations and fines as a cost of doing business.

The city could also require contractors to keep concrete safety managers on site to ensure compliance with city regulations. The city's new building code mandates a similar position for demolition and high-rise construction. Bloomberg said 60 percent of all construction incidents involving falling debris in 2007 occurred during concrete operations.

One bill included in the mayor's proposal (Intro 763), which was introduced by Councilmember Annabel Palma in April, would classify "housekeeping" violations at construction sites, like tripping hazards or inadequate safety netting, immediately hazardous violations -- a type of violation which can carry fines as high as $25,000.

This package would also assign independent safety monitors to sites that have poor safety records. The monitors would be hired under contract by the city, and a general contractor would have to reimburse the department for the monitor's cost before the building received a certificate of occupancy. This proposal was adapted from a bill (Intro 760) introduced by Councilmember Jessica Lappin, whose district includes both crane accident sites, in April .

For crane safety, the city will require a safety meeting before any jumping, erecting or dismantling of equipment with the site safety manager, the crane engineer and any other responsible parties. The city will also require more intensive training for crane operators and restrict the use of nylon slings, which were a cause of the March accident. Bloomberg also said the city would roll out more proposals specifically pertaining to the operation of cranes in the coming weeks and months.

In addition to these proposals, the city would also mandate the following:


  • Reporting Unsafe Conditions in Hazardous Structures: Private property owners will have to file reports with the department for buildings that are vacant and structurally unsound. The city would then inspect the buildings and charge the owner for any emergency work.


  • Inspection of Retaining Walls: Require cyclical inspection of retaining walls by private property owners to ensure those fronting on public areas remain in good repair.


  • Disciplinary Action: Notify the state of any disciplinary action against an architect or engineer, allowing licenses to be revoked if necessary.


  • Qualifications for Commissioner: The city could no longer require its Department of Buildings commissioner to be a registered architect or licensed engineer (Intro 755) under new legislation at the City Council. Bloomberg said the department needs a manager, not necessarily an architect. While that move received some praise from industry professionals, like the Real Estate Board of New York, Fredric Bell, director of AIA New York, raised some concerns here.


  • Annual Safety Reports: The city could also (Intro 754) mandate an annual report on construction related injures, including the type of activity associated with the injury.

    Moving Forward and Building Up

    These are not the first steps the Bloomberg administration has taken following the fatalities in March .

    Since the first accident on March 15, when a crane collapsed into a townhouse and killed seven people, the city has provided the Department of Buildings with $4 million to equip 20 specialized engineers for a citywide analysis of construction site safety.

    Bloomberg also required crane inspectors to oversee sites whenever a crane jumped -- that requirement was scaled back a day before the city's second crane accident in May.

    Despite these efforts, the city still has received some criticism. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer expressed support for the mayor's proposals last week but also warned that the department did not have enough resources, employees or know-how to see them through.

    "We need to know when it's going to happen, who is doing the work, how is it going to get done and we need to get it done now," said Stringer in a prepared statement. "We are piling all of this onto one agency. We must involve multiple agencies or I fear we will not be able to accomplish these goals."

    U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, whose district includes parts of Queens and Manhattan, called for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to inspect all of the city's construction sites. The mayor balked at that idea.

    As some of the latest proposals were introduced at the City Council last month, some industry professionals suggested the city would be better off doing away with the buildings department and remaking it into a public corporation to oversee construction sites. But since the latest fatalities on May 30, several of the city's most powerful groups have reversed that position.

    "It's no secret that we raised some issues, but working over the past two weeks we have resolved just about all those issues," said Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York. "This is a package that will generate additional training, it will require accountability by us in the private sector and, when necessary, it will add additional professional oversight by the proper people."  

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