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New NYC Crane Regulations - Was Wind Improperly Blamed?

New York, New York - During a windy morning on February 5, 2016, a crawler crane, stretched nearly 600 feet in the air, fell to the ground in the Lower Manhattan neighborhood of Tribeca, tragically killing 38-year-old David Wichs on his way to work. The crane incident, caught on camera by a construction worker in a nearby building, illustrates the horrifying cost to human life when there are accidents involving massive machinery.

In the wake of one of the worst crane accidents in years, wind was initially thought to be the culprit of the crane collapse, as the incident occurred at the same time as a 40mph wind gust.

Two days later, New York City Major Bill de Blasio tightened safety measures for crane operations with new restrictions that require crawler cranes, like the one that killed David Wich, to cease operations and go into safety mode when winds are forecast to exceed 20mph or when gusts exceed 30mph. Additionally, the penalty for not adhering to the new restrictions rose from $4,800 to $10,000. The stricter restrictions would be temporary until a new task force, assembled by Mayor de Blasio, recommended long-term solutions within 90 days.

In response to these interim regulations, Allied Building Metal Industries and other trade organizations pushed for a re-examination of these changes, claiming that these new rules would have a "disastrous impact on the industry." The organizations argue that wind speeds frequently reach 20mph. Not only would these new restrictions cause logistical and financial issues for the industry, but constantly raising and lowering crane booms would also create even more dangers for the public. In an interview with Crain's, Executive Director of the Allied Building Metal Industries, William Shuzman, said that he attempted to be part of the discussions around crane safety but "the city has completely ignored all of [his] requests." Louis Coletti, Head of Building Employers Trade Association, was also in contact with the city in regards to bringing key industry members on board in crafting a solution.

On February 24, 2016, Mayor de Blasio announced the creation of a new task force, formally called the Crane Safety Technical Working Group. The Crane Safety Technical Working Group would contribute "their time and expertise to make....construction sites safer for workers and the public." Members include:

· Mary Boyce, Dean of Engineering at The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University

· Wayne Crew, General Secretary of the National Academy of Construction

· Bill Goldstein, most recently Senior Advisor to the Mayor for Recovery, Resiliency, and Infrastructure

· Peter J. Madonia, Chief Operating Officer of the Rockefeller Foundation

· Katepalli Sreenivasan, President of NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering and Dean of Engineering at New York University

Absent from the task force are members of industry organizations, which Mayor Blasio said would be consulted but would not be part of the group.

The Crane Safety Technical Working Group soon published the anticipated report later that summer with 23 crane safety recommendations. Some key suggestions include phasing out older cranes in favor of the latest technology such as anemometers, GPS trackers, and black boxes. Additionally, site-specific wind requirements should be uniformly set to 30mph and crane configurations must cease operation with wind speeds between 20mph to 30mph, unless in non-public areas.

In a June 30, 2016 press release, the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) announced that they have implemented several of the group's recommendations, including the stricter wind guidelines. Crawler crane operations must now cease when winds exceed 30mph, based on on-site measurement of wind speeds.

Now, several industry trade organizations, all members of the Building Trades Employers Association (BTEA), are escalating their discontent in a lawsuit against the DOB and commissioner Rick Chandler. The organizations petitioned against the 30 mph restriction, claiming that this modification ultimately makes crane operations in the city more - not less - unsafe. The lawsuit further maintains that the stricter wind regulations have no scientific basis.

Clearly, public safety and the safety of construction workers are of utmost concern. With the recent surge in New York City construction and construction accidents, there is a greater need to take better safety measures more than ever. The New York Building Congress forecasts $127.5 billion in total spending through 2018, as it anticipates the construction boom to continue through to 2018.

With the lawsuit, a new question arises: is the city taking the right safety measures? Or do these new safety measures actually make crane operations less safe?

The answer is unclear.

Five months after the Tribeca crane collapse, another massive crane fell on the Tappan Zee Bridge. Miraculously, no one was killed in this accident. In both cases, wind did not factor into the cause of the collapse. Investigators eventually determined that the Tribeca crane accident was caused by operator error, as the operator had not followed manufacturer procedures when lowering the boom angle to below 75 degrees.

One statistic from the Crane Inspection & Certification Bureau attributes 90% of crane accidents to human error, not weather.

However, high winds have played a role in crane collapses before - one infamous example being Big Blue, a crawler crane that collapsed in Milwaukee on July 14, 1999. An investigation later revealed that side winds that day had not been considered when lifting the heavy material. Wind speeds were between 20 to 21mph, with gusts up to 27mph at the time of the accident.

Adding to the complexity of the situation is the fact that crane manufacturers have now created "extremely sophisticated" cranes, and some operators still use these machines the same way they used cranes back in the 1990s, as reported by Popular Mechanics. Modern-day cranes have "grown in height and girth" with "controls that have intensified in number and complexity." As a result, past statistics on reasons for crane collapses may not be as relevant to us today.

How often do wind speeds go over 30mph in New York City? Data pulled from the National Centers for Environmental Information for 2015 on-site wind speeds at LaGuardia Airport in Queens shows that the fastest 2-minute wind speed measured surpassed 30mph on 31 days and surpassed 20mph on 174 days out of the year. Considering that this is measured at standard altitude and that cranes are usually raised several hundred feet above ground, wind speeds would exceed 30mph much more frequently at these high altitudes. Another factor that would increase the wind speed in New York City is funneling effect of buildings in urban areas.

One can see how these new regulations can have a potentially damaging effect on the construction industry, affecting jobs and economic growth alike.

With the new regulations, the ultimate goal is to promote public safety. The gargantuan size of modern cranes in a densely populated area like New York City would prove disastrous if further crane accidents were to occur. The most pressing question here is whether or not the city's new regulations would actually decrease the likelihood of crane accidents or if they do not even touch the root of the problem. One variable to the problem is machinery and in regards to this, the same Popular Mechanics article states that "Crane manufacturers are now trying to build in new automatic features to keep disaster from striking their equipment."

As the lawsuit continues, we anticipate that there will be more analysis around crane accident statistics before and after these new restrictions were implemented.

Keeping New York City safe is an on-going effort for us all. The attorneys at Block O'Toole & Murphy offer expert legal advice and representation regarding construction accidents in the state of New York. If you or someone you love have been hurt in an accident concerning machinery such as cranes, please call (212) 736-5300 or email us for a free consultation.