Learning from tragedy: NYC crane collapse triggers heightened scrutiny of construction safety concerns

A crane's boom wobbles as the operator tries to lower it slowly toward the street in advance of approaching high winds. In a matter of seconds, the crane begins to tip and fall as if a fist of air had punched it to the ground, leaving cars crushed, three people injured and one pedestrian dead.

This scenario plays in the back of some construction professionals' minds as they navigate the city streets around — and below — a construction site where heavy equipment like cranes are in use, but it’s a rarity when an accident like the one in New York City earlier this month actually occurs. 

City investigators are working to discover exactly what caused the crane to collapse, if operator or mechanical failure played a part, and how the incident figures into public safety during a record-breaking surge of construction activity in New York. The crane was reportedly owned by Bay Crane and being used by Galasso Trucking and Rigging, according to ABC News. Other municipalities around the country are also watching in the hopes of learning as much as they can to keep their citizens safe amid booming construction activity.

Inside the investigation

So where do investigators start to try to piece together what happened in a crane accident like the one in Manhattan?

Elan Parra, attorney, construction industry investigator and managing partner at Lemire LLC in New York, said the most important component of determining what happened that day is constructing a timeline of events. He said that among the questions to ask are: Who was at the site of the accident? Was the decision to lower the crane made quickly enough? Was the operator actually onsite to secure the crane in a timely fashion? Were the crane and operator in compliance with NYC Department of Buildings mandates?

Video captured of the accident, which has since gone viral, also helps the investigators, according to Parra. However, he said that footage, which could possibly be of less use than expected depending on the angle of shooting, is only one piece of the puzzle.

"Everything is important," Parra told Construction Dive. The wind is probably the most important variable, but he added that there's one question in particular investigators will focus on in the coming days. "The bottom line here is whether or not the operator was trying to secure the crane to make it safe when it collapsed," he said. "That’s it."

Where insurance comes into play

Jake Morin, construction program executive at ProSight Specialty Insurance, said that while the city is working to gather as much information as it can about the accident, the investigation really begins when the insurance companies get involved. Morin said the insurance company will dig back even as far as the original purchase transaction for the crane in an effort to put together a complete picture.

"The city will look at permits, see who was making sure that the area was blocked off, things like that, but we will do a much more in-depth investigation because, at the end of the day, we’re the ones who have to enter into the court room, not the city of New York," he told Construction Dive.

Morin said he believes there is no doubt there will be a civil action filed in conjunction with this accident, and that its high-profile nature can compound the insurance and crane companies' problems. Given New York's history over the last several years with crane accidents, like the one in 2008 that took several lives and inflicted significant property damage, the spotlight is shining extra bright on this incident.  

"When something like this happens, one of the things as an insurance company and as a crane company that you worry about is how magnified the loss is going to be because of the publicity that surrounds it," Morin said. "How many people are going to jump out and say, 'Well, I was actually injured too.'"

When there is a death involved, according to Thomas Kokalas, partner at Bracewell LLP in New York, in addition to civil repercussions, there is also the possibility of criminal liability. To justify criminal charges, there doesn’t have to be intent on the part of the operator or contractor, just a "failure to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk," he said.

"The concept that we’re talking about here in these accidents, as it relates to prosecution, is criminal negligence, and that’s going to be the focus of any investigation where there’s a major construction accident and will determine whether or not anybody’s really going to go to jail," he told Construction Dive.

However, Kokalas emphasized that the prospect of criminal charges is just speculation until the facts are fully revealed.

How to prepare for the worst

Given the consequences of an accident like this, onlookers might wonder if there’s anything that can save a company from complete financial ruin. After all, the resulting property damage is always in the millions, not including the mammoth costs related to a death.

As simple as it sounds, having the right kind of insurance can help get a company through this type of catastrophe without having to go out of business.

While General Liability coverage, which will cover any damage the crane inflicts, including loss of life, is the starting point, special insurance coverages exist to protect crane operators specifically, according to Morin. Riggers Liability covers things "on the hook" and the damage that those items might cause during crane operations, and Inland Marine covers the damage to the crane itself. This is especially important coverage in an accident like the one in New York, where workers had to cut the crane into pieces to remove it from the street, Morin noted.

However, he added that as most of these operators are subcontractors, the general contractor needs to make sure that the crane operator has adequate insurance limits or else, in the case of an accident with massive losses, the claims could start dipping into the GC's insurance policy for payment.

"It's very important to make sure you know where you are and what the litigious climate is, and that you have enough limits to cover the contract you entered into and the worst-case scenario loss," he said.

Morin added that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is coming out with some increased crane safety guidelines in October. He said cranes have been on the back burner at the agency for quite some time, but he believes this high-profile loss in New York will help push OSHA to finalize new guidelines around maintenance, certifications and general safety issues.

Nevertheless, how do contractors and crane operators reduce their chances of an accident to begin with? Morin said it boils down to inspection and maintenance.

"Those are the two items that we can’t preach enough in the industry," he said. "Any good crane company knows that. If you’ve been around long enough, you know that’s the way to save lives, and that’s the way to save your company reputation."

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A broader impact

As to how New York City will try to minimize the risk of future accidents, Mayor Bill de Blasio has already introduced new safety procedures and penalties for the city’s construction sites including:

  • Quadrupling the penalties for serious construction safety lapses
  • Enforcement sweeps at 1,500 high-risk construction sites over the next 90 days
  • New supervision requirements for construction projects
  • The addition of 100 building inspectors

Other cities that have heightened construction activity in high-density, heavily populated areas are sure to start looking at their own procedures, as well.

"I think any time there’s a tragic accident like this, it opens the eyes of a lot of other municipalities and even private businesses," Parra said. "They’ll look internally at what their own policies are to assess what they can do to make sites safe, to reduce potential liability for themselves and to reduce injuries and accidents like this."

Morin agreed that an accident like this is enough to make other large cities reevaluate their own construction safety rules. However, just like in New York City, there are limitations as to how far reaching any changes can be.

"The only problem is whether you’re in Los Angeles, in New York City, in Houston, people still have to live their lives, and that’s the delicate balance a city is always dealing with," Morin said.

SEE ALSO: 'No accident is acceptable': How to foster an effective construction site safety culture​

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Filed Under: Commercial Building Legal/Regulation
Top image credit: Pixabay