THE DISASTROUS CONSEQUENCES OF CRANE ACCIDENTS

On any given day in New York City, more than 300 cranes are operating as the NYC construction boom continues. So says DNAinfo.com, a neighborhood news and information site. They also report that although the Department of Buildings has issued a number of new recommendations during the past decade to reform the way in which crane projects are regulated, only 12 percent of the safety recommendations were being enforced according to a 2014 audit of the DOB’s implementation records.

2016 and 2017 have been particularly bad years for NYC crane accidents. As reported in the New York Post, a 600-foot construction crawler crane, the height of a 15-story building, crashed onto a Manhattan street in the Tribeca area in February 2016, killing a pedestrian and seriously injuring the driver of a Jeep when the crane hit his vehicle and pinned him inside. The New York Daily News subsequently reported that Hecht Kleeger & Damashek, P.C. filed a $30 million lawsuit against the City on behalf of the driver whose skull and spine were fractured. As attorney Jonathan Damashek said, “It’s amazing that he was able to get out of his car alive.” A second pedestrian also was injured, as was a firefighter. Amazingly, the crane operator was not injured.

The crane was in the process of being lowered due to high winds when the operator lost control of it and it collapsed. Just days earlier, the DOB had approved the extension to the crane’s maximum 565-foot length. Subsequent investigation showed that while high winds initially were blamed for the crash, the actual cause was operator error. Eyewitness News reported that the Department of Labor cited Galasso Trucking and Rigging with two serious policy and procedure violations, plus another citation for the operator’s failure to follow the crane manufacturer’s procedures regarding the angle of the crane while being lowered. As James Pritchert, president of Crane Experts International, said, “It [takes] hundreds of tons just to counterbalance that boom, and if you do it too quickly, it could be thrown off balance.”

In November 2016, CBS News reported that two construction workers were killed when a steel beam fell onto a crane in Queens during the construction of a residential housing complex. One of the fatalities was the worker inside the crane’s cab; the other was the worker who was guiding the 6,500-pound I-beam. Other workers at the scene reported that the crane’s cable snapped and broke.

In June 2017, three construction workers were seriously injured when a two-story home collapsed on them after a crane operator deposited a heavy load on the home’s roof. Spectrum New reported the story. One worker was able to free himself from the rubble, despite his injuries, but the FDNY had to extricate the other two, using spreaders, cutters, saws and “every tool we have on our rig.” One worker’s body was pinned full length beneath wood and planks.

New City Regulations

As reported by ConstructionDive.com, after the Tribeca accident, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio instituted new safety procedures and penalties for construction sites, including the following:

  • New construction project supervision requirements
  • 100 new building inspectors
  • 1,500 enforcement sweeps of high-risk construction sites
  • A four-fold increase in penalty amounts for any serious construction safety lapses found

Questions to be Addressed

One construction industry investigator has suggested that, at minimum, the following questions should be asked whenever a crane accident occurs:

  • Who was at the site?
  • Who made the decision to lower the crane?
  • Was the decision made in a timely manner?
  • Was the operator personally onsite to secure the crane?
  • Did the crane and its operator comply with all DOB mandates?

Civil Suits and Criminal Prosecutions

An insurance company construction program executive says that in addition to possible criminal prosecutions against crane companies and operators, construction workers and others who are injured in crane accidents, or who have lost loved ones in such accidents, usually file civil suits seeking damages for their losses. Businesses and individuals who have suffered significant property damage likewise generally file civil suits.

Negligence on the part of a crane company and/or operator can result in both criminal and civil penalties. Neither the prosecutor in a criminal case nor an attorney in a civil action needs to prove that the crane contractor or operator intended to cause the accident. Contractor or operator negligence is sufficient. Taking a substantial and/or unjustifiable risk can constitutes negligence.

OSHA Regulations

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has extensive rules and regulations regarding crane operation, including the following:

  • Basic crane standards
  • Operator certifications and qualifications
  • Rigger qualifications
  • Signal person qualifications
  • Material delivery
  • Ground conditions
  • Power lines
  • Equipment

In addition, OSHA explains how these federal rules and regulations impact state plans, such as the one in New York.

Under the original OSHA crane standard, all crane operators were required to be certified by November 2014. The deadline was later extended to November 2017. Employers also are required to properly train each operator on how to operate the specific equipment he or she works on, as well as to comply with all other OSHA, state, and municipal requirements. OSHA estimates that these new regulations will prevent 22 crane fatalities annually and an additional 175 crane injuries.