Is tower crane safety any safer?

An Eyewitness News Investigation
March 6, 2009 10:26:41 PM PST
It will be one year next week since a crane collapse killed 7 people on Manhattan's East Side.

The fatal accident was followed weeks later by another accident, exposed corruption and understaffing inside the city's crane inspection unit.

Officials promised to fix it, but did they?

There are more crane inspectors for sure, but how qualified they are to thoroughly inspect complex tower cranes is debatable.

Instead of hiring highly-experienced crane experts within the industry, we found the city filled most of the new positions from inside the building's department choosing inspectors with little crane experience.

Despite a nose-diving economy, construction cranes still dot New York's skyline. Forty tower cranes to be exact. That's 20-percent more than last year when two tower cranes collapsed killing nine people. Nearly one year later, the city is touting new crane recommendations which it claims will ''strengthen safety" and ''oversight'' of cranes. Among them: comprehensive crane inspections, a tracking system for critical crane parts and more training for city crane inspectors.

"Who's going to enforce all of this? The Buildings Department doesn't have the staff to do it now. How are they going to enforce this grandiose plan?" wondered construction safety attorney Jeffrey Manheimer.

The Department of Buildings plans to rely on its specialized crane inspectors. Since the fatal accidents, their numbers have more than doubled to 11. Each of them has undergone 170 hours of cranes and rigging training, but out of the 7 new inspectors, five of them come from other divisions within buildings. Their qualifications, some experts told us, fall short of the city's own requirements listed in this job notice. It calls for an associate crane inspector to have a minimum "education or experience" equal to "three years of apprenticeship in hoisting and rigging." Most of the new inspectors have little or no specific experience working with cranes.

"Just because they are already on staff, giving them a new title and training them won't qualify them to be as expertise as they need to be in order to meet these requirements," Frank Bardonaro, Jr. said.

Bardonaro runs AmQuip, the nation's third-largest operator of tower cranes. He says New York will never get a handle on crane safety as long as it relies on a small team of underpaid and under-qualified inspectors. He says the city should do what Philadelphia has done: require each contractor to bring in an independent engineering firm to inspect its crane operation:

"They're stringent. They don't pencil whip these things. They have their company and their reputations on the line, so they're accountable for that inspection," he said.

The Department of Buildings declined our request for an on-camera interview. A spokesman says the city has the toughest crane regulations in the nation, made even tougher by new laws mandating training for tower crane workers. The department says it's also confident that the new recommendations will further improve safety. Yet when we requested a copy of the new study, the city says it's not ready to show the public.

"It makes no sense, unless there's something in the study they're trying to cover up. Maybe the study shows how dangerous the streets of New York have been over the last 5 to 10 years," Manheimer said.

The Buildings Department says it will eventually make the report paid for by tax-payers available to tax-payers.

A spokesman says the Cranes and Derricks Unit has been completely overhauled with more inspectors with specialized training