Crane Accident Renews Call for U.S. Standards

George Drapeau III with combined industry reports | September 28, 2010

NEW YORK — One of New York City’s worst construction accidents in years – the result of wreckage left behind after a 300-foot-tall construction crane collapsed Sat., March 15 – has set in motion changes to the way the city’s Buildings Department inspects and regulates crane towers. The accident, which killed seven people, also sparked renewed calls for national safety standards on crane operations.

The crane collapsed in a dense East Side Manhattan neighborhood as workers were “jumping” the crane or installing new sections to the crane so it could extend higher as construction work continued.

At a news conference on Tuesday, March 25, City Buildings Department officials said that a city inspector must now be on the construction site every time a crane is erected, jumped or dismantled.

At press time, the Buildings Department said it was revising guidelines. Among the changes, the project engineer who submits the original permit application for a crane will be required to produce a “written protocol” for each jump. Also, an engineer will be required to inspect the crane to certify that it was built and assembled according to the plans.

The Buildings Department is also expanding its involvement in the jobsite safety process by requiring the lead contractor on the project to hold a meeting with workers involved before each jumping operation. Under the new guidelines, a Buildings Department inspector must be present to monitor those meetings.

The Buildings Department said there were some 30 tower cranes located at construction sites throughout the city.

On March 15, workers were attaching a 6-ton collar to the crane to anchor it to the 18th floor of the building. Two similar collars had been attached on lower floors earlier in the project. Before the installation was complete, the supports holding the collar broke and it fell, pancaking the other two collars and leaving the crane unattached to the building.

According to workers on the site and other eyewitnesses, the crane then toppled backward across the street, damaging a 19-story apartment and demolishing a four-story town house.

Within days of the disaster, a city inspector was arrested on charges of falsifying business records and offering a false instrument for filing, allegedly for making a false entry in his Inspector’s Route Sheet. The details of the charges suggest that a local resident’s complaint about the crane may not have been properly investigated.

“We will not tolerate this kind of behavior at the city’s Department of Buildings,” Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster said at a news conference. “I do not and will not tolerate any misconduct in my department.”

If convicted, the inspector faces up to four years in prison.

Commissioner Lancaster ordered a full audit of the inspector’s inspection reports over the past six months, and also of the cranes and derricks unit. Earlier, city officials said they had started inspecting every construction crane in use around New York City, though authorities have said there’s no indication that the accident on the East Side of Manhattan points to a larger problem.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has launched its investigation into the crane’s collapse. About 80 workers each year die from crane-related incidents, according to OSHA.

“While New York and many other states and localities require certification or licensing to operate a crane, there is no federal or uniform nationwide standard,” wrote attorney Thomas Welby, Esq., of the construction law firm Welby, Brady & Greenblatt, LLP, with offices in White Plains, N.Y. “Many states regulate hairdressers more strictly than crane operators,” he reports in his regular monthly column that appears in the Construction News (see page 16).

The construction industry has been waiting for an OSHA rule on crane and derrick safety. The Crane and Derrick Negotiated Rulemaking Advisory Committee completed a consensus draft rule in July 2004, intended as the basis for OSHA’s rule. In November 2006, OSHA Administrator Edwin G. Foulke Jr. said the agency was committed to publishing the regulation by October 2007. But according to the BNA’s Daily Labor Report, OSHA has missed a deadline it set for new rules on crane and derrick safety.

In January, an OSHA official said the rule would not be complete by the end of 2008 and could not predict when it might be finalized.

George Drapeau III is the executive editor of the Construction News, a monthly newspaper published by the Construction Industry Council, the Hudson Valley’s premier association for the Heavy/Highway Industry. It represents everyone from contractors to suppliers, professionals, consultants, municipal and state officials.