Fast-buck construction behind crane disaster

NEW YORK — A crane collapse here May 30, killing two construction workers, brought the total of construction-related deaths in the city since January to 19. There have been 31 deaths of construction workers on the job here in the last seven months, a big increase over previous years.

This latest dramatic accident, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, has drawn the attention and conversation of New Yorkers to the crisis brought about by out-of-control for-profit development in the city.

A previous crane collapse on Manhattan’s East Side in April killed seven people and injured several more, leading to the forced resignation of New York City Building Commissioner Patricia Lancaster. But sacrificing Lancaster as a scapegoat has not freed Mayor Michael Bloomberg from blame.

Bloomberg has been the architect of the construction boom in the city, which has emphasized for-profit residential and commercial development through tax and other incentives, rezoning and public financing of massive building projects.

High-rise building construction in particular has been growing exponentially, but not without problems. High-rise buildings require special cranes and equipment that are dangerous and require specialized training and safety measures. But city oversight offices may not be up to the challenge.

According to the Department of Buildings, the number of complaints has increased to 140,000 a year from 38,000 in 2002.

Bloomberg and acting Building Commissioner Robert Li Mandri planned to hire 63 additional inspectors for building sites, bringing the number of inspectors to 461. It was too little too late for the workers who died May 30.

Hundreds of worksites and dozens of cranes are in operation in the city. The Department of Buildings is evaluating conditions at sites across the city.

Louis Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employer’s Association, a trade organization of unionized construction contractors, who was on a taskforce created by Lancaster earlier this year, said many small firms that use non-union labor openly flout laws and regulations. “They don’t file building permits,” said Coletti. “They don’t care about their workers. They don’t care about public safety. They want to get in, get the job done, go to the next one and put the money in their pocket.”

Of course, the contractors are not the only ones to blame. The various city agencies mandated with oversight of construction and buildings often look the other way or aid in substandard, unsafe or overtly illegal construction. After the crane collapse in April, Lancaster revealed that the high-rise being built was erroneously granted a building permit in violation of zoning laws. A complaint at the site went uninvestigated. The inspector admitted to signing off on the crane without actually visiting the site.

The site where the crane fell last week had a slew of violations and complaints against it, some related to the crane’s use. It appears that workers, nearby residents and passers-by were at risk long before the crane fell.

Local construction workers marked Workers Memorial Day (April 28) this year by mourning the loss of the many coworkers who have died in the past few months. At a service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Edward Malloy, president of the New York Building and Construction Trades Council, said, “No one will forget the fallen workers because the legacy of all construction workers ... is the skyline of New York.”

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) called for an investigation by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Gov. David Paterson announced a state investigation into the latest accident. Bloomberg was angered by both initiatives, insisting that the Department of Buildings was not at fault and arguing that “construction is a dangerous business and you will always have fatalities.”

Many fear that until major changes are made to slow and regulate the building boom in New York City, we are likely to have more construction workers — and perhaps bystanders — die from the construction crisis.

Libero Della Piana contributed to this article.