New York City construction is booming, and with considerable growth come considerable problems. Bloomberg estimates that construction revenue in New York City in 2016 will rise 26 percent over 2015, which will make 2016 a record year for the construction industry in New York City. But with the good comes the bad and the bad, in this case, comes in the form of construction injuries and law changes to try and increase job site safety.
Between 2013 and 2014 the New York City construction industry experienced 117 deaths, which meant that the construction industry was responsible for 85 percent of the occupational fatalities in all of New York City. But of all the deaths that the New York City construction industry has experienced, the Department of Buildings (DOB) is most concerned with a crane collapse that killed one person and started a firestorm of controversy at the same time.
The Tribeca Crane Collapse That Changed The Rules
In an area of Lower Manhattan known as Tribeca, a crane collapsed on February 5, 2016, and killed one pedestrian and injured three others. The crane also damaged several buildings in the area that will all need to be repaired. There were several elements of this accident that caused the DOB to act immediately and, according to two major construction industry organizations, irrationally. The first concern is that the deceased was not even in the construction area when he was struck and killed by the crane. The DOB is still wrestling with how to better protect pedestrians near job sites and improve site safety for everyone. However, it has yet to issue any kind of new work site safety rules.
The other element of the Tribeca incident that bothered the DOB is that the winds were blowing up to 40 MPH and the DOB considers that type of wind speed to be dangerous working conditions. By March, the DOB had issued new rules regarding crane safety in New York City and the new rules immediately caused a harsh and sustained response from construction groups.
The New DOB Changes
The DOB decided that when the wind speeds become 30 MPH or more that all crawler cranes and high-reach cranes need to be brought down until the wind speed eased. While the DOB did allow construction companies to return to work if the winds eased on the same day, there is no rule that allows cranes to be brought down to a halfway point where they could be on standby. The moment the winds reach 30 MPH or more, the cranes must be lowered completely and secured.
The DOB also mandated that every construction company that uses crawler cranes in the city must employ a lift manager who monitors wind speeds and makes sure that the crane is brought down when it is supposed to. This creates a brand new paying position that construction companies all over the city must add into their budgets and employ immediately.
The Initial Response To The Ruling
The initial response from groups such as Building Trades Employers’ Association of New York and the General Contractors Association of New York was swift and angry. Both groups insisted that constantly raising and lowering a crane of that size based on the wind speed will cost construction companies a significant amount of money. Companies that were already working on projects were in danger of losing money on them because the new DOB laws were immediate and did not allow companies to finish those first.
The other issue that the construction groups had was that the new laws forced contractors to hire new and high-paying engineering experts to exclusively monitor the wind and the cranes. Every new crawler crane comes equipped with a wind speed gauge and most of the older cranes had already been retrofitted with their own gauges. The construction groups maintain that it would be cheaper to allow companies to install cameras in crane cabs that monitored the gauges or have the companies install gauges that digitally reported wind speeds to a central location for monitoring purposes.
Lawsuits Being Filed Against The Current Ruling
The DOB pointed out that all it was doing was enforcing a law that had first been put in place in 1968. But the construction organizations countered that the law had no basis in research or experience and was only going to damage construction companies. According to the construction groups, there is no indication that any other large city or state in the country has laws that require cranes to be brought down in 30 MPH winds, and there is no scientific research or available data to indicate that those winds are dangerous to a crawler crane.
The construction groups insist that the DOB brought back the rarely-enforced 1968 code immediately after the February Tribeca incident without consulting with industry experts or even reading crane operator’s manuals to see what the wind speed tolerance really is for a 500-foot crawler crane. The construction groups also wonder why a crane is unsafe in 30 MPH winds but perfectly safe in 29 MPH gusts.
The construction groups filed several lawsuits to have the new crane operation laws nullified as well as the lift manager position mandate. The construction industry maintains that it is not against improving job site safety and protecting the public. However, the industry demands that any laws put into effect be based on real scientific evidence, input from industry experts, and guidelines set by crane manufacturers.
Was The Law Change Timeline Sufficient?
At the core of this entire debate is the fact that the rules demanding crawler cranes be lowered when the winds reach 30 MPH were already in effect with the Tribeca accident happened, but the DOB never enforced the rules. It is unclear if the 1968 law had any basis in scientific fact or industry experience, but the DOB is using that law as the basis for proving that it did not pull the 30 MPH number out of nowhere.
A further concern for the industry is the timeline regarding the resurfacing of the 1968 law. The Tribeca accident occurred on February 5, 2016, and the law was reinforced in early March. The construction industry maintains that the DOB could not have possibly employed the right kind of research that would allow for a decision that protected the public and prevented financial damage to the construction industry in that short of a time. The lawsuits demand that the existing law be discarded and a cooperative effort between the construction industry and the DOB be created to help develop the right laws for all parties.
The Disconnect Between The Industry And The DOB
The New York City DOB has never been a group that allows the construction industry to be intimately involved in making building codes and laws.True to form, in this case, it is unlikely that the DOB will welcome the idea of working with the construction industry. The DOB can also state that it did not act without some kind of supporting information by pointing to the small amount of research that was done for the original 1968 law.
However, that law was written at a time that was much different than today. At the present time, the construction industry is much different than it was in 1968, and the New York City government knows how damaging it could be if construction companies stopped bidding on projects because of the new law.
If these initial lawsuits go against the construction industry, it can be expected that more legal action will take place. In the end, the construction industry is asking the DOB to take responsibility for its decisions and collect real information before issuing laws that financially damage the entire industry.