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The Nuts and Bolts of Construction Accidents

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When we think of NYC construction accidents, we often focus on employer and building owner practices that create conditions that allow accidents to happen. One factor that gets less attention is the materials used in construction. Shoddy building materials may be the cause of more accidents than we know. Whether a contractor was trying to save a few dollars or was unaware of the problem, the injuries and deaths that can result are all too real.

Take bolts and fasteners, used throughout high-rise construction to stabilize joints. An example of danger averted involved the 59-story Citicorp Center in midtown Manhattan at 601 Lexington Avenue, completed in 1977. It turned out that the builder decided to substitute bolts for welds in the wind-bracing system. The novel slanted angle of the building's higher stories made a high wind much more dangerous than had the building been constructed as a solid block. The building engineer caught this, and the building's owners spent many months strengthening bolted joints with welded steel plates. No one was injured as a result of the bad decision by the contractor, but the consequences could have been catastrophic.

In this case, there was nothing wrong with the bolts - they just were not adequate for the job they were supposed to do. However, there are many counterfeit fasteners out there, and their use has been responsible for numerous deaths. Several spectacular accidents have been attributed to counterfeit materials. One was an airplane that disintegrated at 22,000 feet, killing all on board. The tail bolts came loose in that instance and counterfeit bolts were blamed.

In 1985, counterfeit bolts caused an army self-propelled howitzer to collapse, killing a soldier. Counterfeit bolts were to blame. Two crane accidents in the 1980s have also been blamed on counterfeit fasteners. Other accidents attributed to counterfeit bolts include helicopter crashes, toxic leaks, and a radio tower that collapsed. All incidents caused fatalities.

In 1990, an industry study reported that nearly 400 people had been killed in a 15-year period because of counterfeit nuts and bolts. As a result, Congress passed the Fastener Quality Act, providing for large fines for suppliers of counterfeit, mislabelled or substandard product. Things improved, but stories of shoddy fasters continued to shock. In 2012, a company was indicted for selling counterfeit rotor lock nuts for military helicopters.

The good news is that there have not been recent construction accidents or other incidents in New York City attributed to weak or counterfeit bolts and fasters.

Source: Washington City Paper, "Will Cheaper Construction Materials Mean Tall Buildings Collapse?" Jan. 10, 2014.