Continuing his overhaul of the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) that began in the wake of last year’s fatal crane accidents, Commissioner Robert LiMandri announced yesterday the findings from an unprecedented $4 million High Risk Construction Oversight (HRCO) study of crane, hoist, concrete, and excavation operations launched in April 2008. In concert with the announcement, the department’s annual budget has been increased by $5.3 million to fund 63 new positions for oversight and enforcement of construction safety regulations.
In front of building industry members assembled at the annual BuildSafe New York conference, LiMandri revealed that the department will implement 41 recommendations to “help prevent accidents and raise accountability across the board.” The changes are based on findings by more than 30 engineers from CTL Engineers and Construction Technology Consultants (CTL). CTL president Dr. Gene Corley, who led investigations of structural performance following the Oklahoma City bombing and September 11 attacks, said the team visited approximately 600 construction sites and met with stakeholder organizations to gather data.
One of the study’s recommendations is receiving special attention from the DOB. LiMandri and a group of construction firm officers, union representatives, worker advocates, and OSHA members are promoting a new worker safety campaign that encourages construction workers to wear safety harnesses whenever they are on the job site. The campaign features posters in seven languages, along with a picture of a father in yellow construction hat with his son, and the message: “If you fall, they fall too.” According to the commissioner, worker education is crucial to reducing 2008’s high fall-injury rate, up 121 percent from 2007.
DOB Cranes and Derricks division head Jason Ocharsky presented the study’s recommendations for crane and hoist operations. Though Ocharsky at times drew laughs from the audience—“Ladies and gentlemen," he said at one point, "you should not need a rubber band, a bungee cord, duct tape, and a golf club sock to operate a crane”—the proposed regulations are serious and far-reaching. Recommendations include increased technical oversight of tower crane operations and more training for DOB inspectors. Ocharsky pointed to examples of regulations in countries such as Singapore, where cranes older than ten years are retired permanently, regardless of their condition. The HRCO’s analysis of excavation and concrete operations was equally extensive, though crane safety remains foremost in the public’s mind after last year’s deadly accidents.
While doing its part to quell accusations from City Hall about DOB shortcomings, the HRCO study will raise questions about whether the city’s building safety issues have been correctly evaluated and remedied. Last September, when the Buildings Department announced new requirements for erecting, dismantling, and raising tower cranes, it heard a collective groan from industry members who feared the regulations would drastically slow the city’s building projects and put jobs at risk.
Whether the new rules help or hurt the industry in a time of stagnating projects remains to be seen. LiMandri said that the current downturn could provide a much-needed pause to improve construction safety throughout the city. And he emphasized that regardless of industry concerns, building professionals should be prepared for changes. New Yorkers are armed with camera phones and quick to dial 311, he pointed out. Should the department turn up new areas of safety risk, LiMandri added: “We’re going to regulate it.”