Construction is a dangerous business — that's no surprise. What might be a surprise, however, is the fact that more bystanders aren't injured or killed given the amount of drilling, cutting, hoisting, sawing and grinding that happens on a daily basis, often at hundreds of feet in the air. But when accidents happen that impact the surrounding community, it can be the stuff of nightmares for the victims as well as for the construction companies and workers on the job.
One major bystander accident happened just this month in Miami, when a section of scaffolding collapsed, hurling wood and metal to the ground. Five workers sustained non-life-threatening injuries, but a bystander, who ran to avoid being hit by the falling material, died of a "cardiac incident," local fire officials reported.
Another pedestrian was killed in New York City in February after a gust of wind toppled a crane into a Manhattan street. And in one of the most high-profile cases, a building demolition project caved in on a Salvation Army thrift store in Philadelphia in 2013. The general contractor and a subcontractor, who are now facing prison sentences in connection with the collapse, were dismantling a four-story brick wall when it fell onto the store, killing six people and injuring 14 others. As it turned out, the general contractor allegedly removed all the wood support beams prior to the accident so that he could sell them for extra cash.
From safety concerns to noise pollution and traffic, how can construction companies manage potential risks to the community around a job site?
The inherent danger of construction
"It's a dangerous industry, whether it's in Miami or New York," said attorney Glenn Monk, partner at Harrington, Ocko & Monk. Overall, he said, the steps to protect the public are fairly uniform throughout the country, such as flagger requirements, which call for a trained individual to coordinate and direct the movement of vehicles and pedestrians around a job site. While probably mostly known to the public as that "guy in the orange vest" waving cars along next to a road or highway crew, flaggers, Monk said, are a safety necessity, keeping people from stepping out from behind parked vehicles into oncoming traffic and away from potentially dangerous job site activities.
Tony Miliote, vice president of Shawmut Design and Construction's tri-state institutional division, said that when it comes to the potential for injury, the company looks at each project and identifies who is at the greatest risk, whether that means children during a school renovation or medical staff during a hospital renovation. The question to ask, he said, is, "How would you protect your own kids?"
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's regulations contribute to job site safety as well, according to I. Paul Howansky, also a partner at Harrington, Ocko & Monk. An OSHA investigation, he said, will prompt other agencies to look into accidents, most certainly if a bystander is involved. OSHA laws are not specific to pedestrian safety, but they can protect them anyway.
Monk said he considers the biggest threat to bystanders to be when a crane is raising material over a street or when crews are offloading material that will restrict traffic and pedestrian flow. The best strategy, he said, is to perform these operations during off hours so that the permit requires the least amount of closure time and there are as few people and cars around as possible. In addition, he said, crane crews must be trained to know whether windy conditions merit shutting down operations.
The importance of planning
So is there one solution? Not really, according to these experts, as each job requires its own assessment. But if there's one policy or procedure that comes close to being the silver bullet for bystander safety, Howansky, Miliote and Monk said it would be planning.
Large construction companies usually hire third-party safety managers to perform critical job hazard analyses for every conceivable task on the site months in advance, Monk said. The method in which material is hoisted and stored, each step of the construction process, crane use, scaffold erection, and how this all works with traffic patterns and pedestrian flow are taken into consideration and then studied and revised daily. In fact, the New York City Department of Buildings requires a Certified Site Safety Manager on any project 15 stories or taller or any project larger than 100,000 square feet.
For smaller companies who can't afford to hire a third party, the rules are still the same — analyze, reassess and then repeat that process every day.
But death and serious injury are not the only threats posed by construction activity. Noise pollution, vibration, surrounding streets blocked off from pedestrian and vehicle use, and traffic jams are just some of the things that can annoy — or cost — those living or working near a job site.
Again, Miliote said planning, is key. Too much noise? Build sound barriers or use sound blankets to minimize what nearby residents or businesses can hear. Make sure cars and trucks aren't left idling, and, if they have to be, invest in systems that will muffle the sound. For dust, he advised encapsulating the work, using HEPA filtering equipment or wetting the dirt or dust-creating material down as much as possible.
For work that involves jackhammers or other vibratory equipment, Miliote said companies should use sensors on adjacent buildings that ensure movement doesn’t exceed building code requirements. If crews generate vibrations beyond the limits, this could cause buildings to settle or shift beyond the norm, so it's important to be aware of those readings.
Other ways to mitigate risk
But even with the most detailed plans, there are limits. In one case, Howansky said, some brief winds blew decorative stones off the top of a high-rise, and they hit a building four blocks away. "Can you really foresee protecting pedestrians and buildings four blocks away? At some point, you have to draw a line in the sand about your zone of danger," he said.
Miliote said constant communication is probably the best policy to have in place when it comes to those impacted, even in the smallest ways, by construction activity and noise. "Information is great," he said. "People's tolerance for inconvenience is much higher if they know what's going on and if they are part of it."
In addition, he said it's important to constantly reassess job site conditions and make changes if necessary. "Listen to what's important to them," he said. "Most people are generally understanding."