Department of Buildings Conference Cites Risk Reduction as “Moral Imperative”

Over 350 building professionals — owners, developers, contractors, architects, engineers, construction companies — filled a W. 46th St. venue for the DOB’s annual Build Safe/ Live Safe conference. | Photo by Eileen Stukane

BY EILEEN STUKANE | Twelve construction workers died in 2017, a fatality number that has remained the same for the last three years. “The 12 fatalities are unacceptable,” said Timothy Hogan, the city Department of Buildings’ deputy commissioner for enforcement. He was speaking to more than 350 building professionals at the DOB’s eighth annual Build Safe/Live Safe conference on May 10. Throughout the day, DOB’s specialists conducted educational seminars with PowerPoint presentations that would fulfill license renewal course requirements for Professional Engineers and Registered Architects — but life-and-death risk was never far from minds. Whether the topic was structural stability, gas work, excavation or classifying housing, the emphasis never veered from what could be done to keep the almost 160,000 workers at our city’s construction sites from harm, not to mention the rest of us who walk under scaffolding and around big machinery every day.

“While construction has long been one of the most dangerous jobs in America, we have a moral imperative to reduce the risks. Indeed, our goal has to be that no one loses their life on a construction site,” said Rick Chandler, the DOB’s commissioner, in his opening remarks. “To further this goal we’ve increased penalties and enforcement operations to send the message to everyone in the construction industry that safety must come first. We’ve quadrupled fines for the most serious safety lapses and we’ve hired more than 140 new enforcement inspectors.”

A flyer at the conference reminded attendees to stay alert and follow safety guidelines. | Photo by Eileen Stukane

In addition to fatalities, there were 666 injuries in 2017 and 184, or 29 percent, were due to workers falling. Hogan gave examples of workers who did not tie off their safety equipment to proper anchors, or professionals such as the surveyor who walked onto a platform unaware that it had not been secured, falling five stories to his death. “Tie off,” counseled Hogan. “Ten deaths here were preventable if safety measures were taken. The individuals who died would be here today if they had tied off.” Another measure of safety which he felt was frequently forgotten was that cold-formed steel should not be moved until it is completely secured based on manufacturers’ recommendations. Such steel overloaded on a platform that cannot bear the weight can, and has, cracked and collapsed on workers. Due to a cold-formed steel load, Hogan noted, “Two workers fell through a fourth floor platform and were trapped. It took the fire department five hours to dig them out,” said Hogan.

Legislative Safety
Local Law 196 of 2017 was a star at the Build Safe/Live Safe conference. It took a while for the bill that would create this law for safety training to be approved by the New York City Council, since there was opposition from the real estate industry, contractors, and immigration advocates. Initially it was felt that the extent of the required safety training favored union members and would jeopardize the jobs of minority and nonunion workers. Eventually, a consensus was reached, and the approved bill was signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio in October 2017. A task force of 14 members — seven appointed by the mayor and seven appointed by the speaker of the City Council — created the curriculum for citywide safety training. (Of the City Council appointments, six were made by then-Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, with the seventh appointed by Corey Johnson after he became Speaker in January 2018).

The law, designed to save lives, has some daunting requirements. It was the job of Patrick Wehle, DOB’s assistant commissioner for external affairs, to bring everyone in the conference up to speed. Wehle began by reminding everyone that much of the training in the curriculum already existed. “The problem we have today is not lack of availability of quality training, it’s lack of workers who are availing themselves of that training,” he said. The new law mandates construction and demolition workers on large building construction projects where licensed safety professionals are required, to undergo specified hours of safety training.

Permit holders of a building project must now keep a log, subject to DOB inspection, that identifies workers and supervisors on the job, and their proof of training. The Local Law 196 safety training follows Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines, which are being undertaken in phases. By May 1, 2019 workers at designated job sites will have received 40 hours of safety training and safety supervisors, 62 hours.

In March 2018, workers began a minimum of 10 hours of OSHA training (but could also have signed up for OSHA’s 30-hour training or a DOB-approved 100-hour training program). By December 2018, 30 hours of OSHA training are needed, and, by May 1, 2019, a minimum of 40 hours of safety training. (In-person and proctored online training courses are available.) By 2020, all construction sites should be employing people who have completed 40 hours of safety training. The days of falling cranes and suspended scaffolds breaking loose — potential accidents that frighten New Yorkers and make them scurry across the street to distance themselves from construction sites — should, ideally, be over (or most certainly, greatly reduced).

DOB inspectors will show up at construction sites to see whether workers have training, and for every worker who does not have proof of training, there is a violation with a fine of up to $5,000 each for the owner of the site, the permit holder of the job, and the employer of the untrained worker. The fine will hold for each untrained worker. There is also a violation with a $2,500 penalty if the permit holder of a job fails to keep a site safety log of the proven safety training every worker has completed.

Rick Chandler, commissioner of the Department of Buildings, spoke to the industry crowd about the department’s determination to change the culture of construction sites. | Photo by Eileen Stukane

Old Buildings Still Alive
The story of New York City buildings was told through the seminar “Classifying NYC’s Housing Stock: Clarifying a Difficult Issue,” conducted by Timothy Lynch, the DOB’s chief engineer for enforcement, and Jill Hrubecky, the DOB’s executive engineer for investigative engineering services. The two engineers offered the news that the DOB is building a census of every building in New York City, all 1.1 million of them. There is no complete, centralized source for records of every building — its age and structure — in any city agency, yet the DOB’s housing data goes back to the 1600s. From 1950 on, the DOB’s building records are catalogued. Prior to 1950, housing records, if they exist, are scattered.

Lynch spoke like a detective, tracking down the profiles of buildings through historic codes, zoning, the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s 40,000 buildings, and most fruitful for him, the NYC Department of Finance (DOF). “The DOF is constantly scrubbing our data because their revenues depend on buildings,” he said. “There’s a known DOF classification that nearly never changes and we use it as one of our bases and reconcile around it.” Lynch is down to about 100,000 of what he calls “mystery buildings” that he is working to find and analyze, buildings that are at least 150 years old, probably of unreinforced masonry. Whenever the mystery is solved, the asset to builders will be in knowing whether a construction project will include such old buildings with their frail structures and safety issues. Then plans can be created to prevent collapse.

Asked for his perspective, Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, noted in a May 15 email to this publication that he had not yet heard about the project. “If done accurately, it sounds like it could be a great resource,” Berman said, but expressed concerns that a “census of buildings with inaccurate information about date of construction could do more harm than good.” Nevertheless, such a resource seems poised to be of both interest and use to numerous city departments and neighborhood preservation groups.

They may be DOB engineers, but Timothy Lynch and Jill Hrubecky are also top-notch detectives on the case of NYC’s housing history. | Photo by Eileen Stukane


For New Yorkers
When talking safety, Joe Solvedere, DOB’s assistant commissioner for communications, advises that the takeaway from the conference should be for construction workers to be alert to the need to wear safety harnesses connected to anchors. He reminds that if any New Yorker sees work on a construction site that appears to be unsafe, he or she should call 311 to report it. “We will route inspectors to take a look and take enforcement actions if we need to,” he said.

Also there are more than 7,000 sidewalk sheds citywide, taking up almost 270 miles, which he counsels are “perfectly safe,” and can be located on a real-time map on the DOB’s website:

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