By: Carol A. Sigmond
On February 16, 2016, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYC Department of Buildings Commissioner Rick Chandler announced a new aggressive campaign to improve worker safety on construction sites. Doubtless, this initiative is a direct result of 1) an increase in construction related deaths in 2015 and 2) the investigation into the death of a worker on a project at Ninth Avenue that resulted in among other things, the August 5, 2015, indictment of Harco Construction and its site safety manager for manslaughter and the debarment of Marco for safety violations.
Briefly, on April 6, 2015, at the site located near the High Line, Harco is alleged to have allowed a laborer to be working in an un-shored, unbraced trench, 14 feet in depth. The worker was crushed to death when the trench collapsed. Safety rules generally require trenches to be shored or otherwise braced from depths of 5 feet. The purpose of the shoring or bracing is to prevent the sides of the trench from collapsing on workers an crushing or suffocating them. Both site safety managers involved at the site of the accident and Harco as the general contractor and the subcontractor were charged criminally. Safety experts appear to consider this accident to have been preventable by shoring or bracing the trench.
The death at the Harco site near the High Line was only one of the construction deaths in 2015. In 2015 there were 11 deaths on NYC construction sites. This is during a time when there has been a 300% increase in construction in New York City. However, in an unexpected development, 70% of all accidents occur at building sites of less than 10 stories.
2016 is not off to a good start vis a vis construction safety. On February 5, 2016, a crane collapsed, killing one person and injuring three others. This accident is under investigation but from the photographs and reported accounts, it appears that in the overcast and icy conditions, one of the trawlers on the crane may have slipped, placing the entire crane assembly under stress and causing the boom to whip and bend from the force. Corrective actions and assignment of responsibility will have to wait until there is a definitive investigation.
The City is not waiting for the results of the investigation into the latest crane accident. Effective immediately, all new building sites of less than 10 stories or that involve an alteration to the building’s floor plates will now require a construction superintendent. This is substantial change, previously many of these projects were exempt from the requirement for site safety manager to enforce the site safety plan.
All construction sites in the city will be inspected over the next 90 days, with special emphasis on jobs 10 stories and above.
Penalties for violating stop work orders and other serious violations will be quadrupled from a range of $2,400 to $10,000 to $5,000 to $25,000.
Stop work orders will be issued more aggressively for safety violations. According to the Mayor’s statement, the emphasis will be on worker safety, but expect a similar emphasis on pedestrian safety as well due to the crane accident last week.
Over the next 4 months, DOB will be hiring 100 new inspectors. These new inspectors herald another change, referring more safety type issues for criminal prosecution.
In addition, the City announced that it will suspend contractors (that is bar them from pulling or maintaining any permits for construction) for poor safety records. Harco’s suspension was the first and was lifted after it entered into a settlement with the City, the terms of which are not public, but the record suggests that the Harco settlement did include payment of a heavy fine.
The City believes that most construction accidents are preventable and hopes that by increasing the fines, suspensions and stop work orders to bring about more voluntary compliance with safety rules.
The one caution that I offer is that public employees increase, they never decrease. Once this additional inspectors are hired and trained, they will need to be employed writing violations continuously. In any retrenchment in the construction industry, they may find their way to cooperative and condominium projects. Therefore, building owners and operators should review safety procedures to ensure that workers safety on their respective properties.
This column presents a general discussion. This column is not intended to provide legal advice. You should consult your attorney for specific legal advice.