As construction cranes and scaffolds permeate Midtown West, the New York City Department of Buildings considers the safety of workers and pedestrians. In the last year, the department decided to form a special West Side Safety Team and to adopt revised citywide construction codes. But there’s a problem: the team doesn’t exist yet, and the enactment of the codes has been postponed.
Prompted by increased construction in the Hudson Yards area, the West Side Safety Team is billed on the department’s website as “new, dedicated construction oversight” running from 14th St. to 47th St., from Sixth Avenue to the Hudson.
“It doesn’t exist at this point,” said Alexander Schnell, DOB deputy press secretary. “This concept was established around nine months ago, and it was due to the foresight that there were expensive construction concepts going up along the West Side.”
The department’s new 2014 construction codes are on hold as well. The codes, which have been updated from the 2008 standard, had their effective date pushed out from October 1 to December 31.
Schnell said the delay was a result of having to implement various changes, and “an opportunity for individuals to have more time to educate themselves.” The Mayor’s office, which signed off on the postponement, directed inquiries back to the DOB.
The revised codes are a result of over 48,000 hours of work from 350 experts from the fields of construction, government, labor and academia. A department press release dated September 9 quoted Buildings Commissioner Rick Chandler saying, “These code provisions will allow New York to build more homes, schools and offices for our families and businesses to grow while ensuring the safety of neighboring properties, pedestrians and construction sites.”
“The law is on paper, that’s it. If they write it down they have to enforce it,” said Yaussef Bousserri, a manager at Midtown 38 Wines on W. 38th St., in regard to the delay. “What you see every day is not what they are writing on paper.”
Last week, he said, a truck jumped the curb in front of his store and tore down a 65-foot section of scaffolding. “Anything can happen. You think you’re safe and ‘BOOM ,’” said Bousserri.
Safety in the area is in the spotlight after the recent death of Rodolfo Vasquez-Galian, a 27-year-old who was killed while working on the foundation of a new hotel at 326 West 37th street. The New York Times reported he was crushed beneath a slab of concrete that had fallen from the wall of a neighboring building.
DOB records show that there was a complaint issued in May, saying that construction was causing the adjacent building to shake and vibrate. The department inspected the site and decided no action was necessary.
The department said it was unable to comment on the accident that resulted in Vasquez-Galian’s death as the site is still under investigation. Currently, there is a partial stop work order on the property.
Raj Rampersaud, who works at the Homewood Suites hotel down the block, feels safe despite the recent accident. “I’m used to this stuff already,” he said, referring to the extensive amounts of scaffolding and construction. “They’re playing monopoly around here. These guys are throwing up hotels like you wouldn’t believe.”
The proposed safety team would serve mainly in Manhattan Community Board 4, where there have been over 200 new building or significant change permits—known as Alt 1— issued since 2012. When asked about the recent accident, Board Chair Christine Berthet said, “The DOB is doing a poor job and fines are so small that construction companies call it the cost of doing business.”
Board member Lee Compton was more diplomatic, saying, “our consistent feeling is that the Department of Buildings needs more resources to enforce rules and regulations. We work hard on zoning and it doesn’t get implemented because of resources.”
Ernest Modarelli, a board member who lives in Midtown West on 36th St. and Ninth Avenue, said he doesn’t feel unsafe about the construction sites, but he does feel unsafe at the way construction blocks sidewalks, sending pedestrians into the crowded streets leading up to the Lincoln Tunnel.
If and when The West Side team gets underway, it will be modeled after the Major Projects Program, which was started during the Bloomberg era. That program allows projects deemed risky or challenging to receive a point person from the department, who will work with developers, contractors and construction managers on pre-construction planning and best practices.
A 2012 department service update on the Major Project Program stated, “in this initiative’s pilot program, participating developments had 40 percent fewer accidents, 49 percent fewer violations and 82 percent fewer full Stop Work Orders with 380 more days at work, compared to similar projects before the program’s launch.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ preliminary data recorded 11 construction industry deaths in NYC in 2013, down from 19 the year before. According to the US Dept. of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration, construction is the deadliest industry in the United States, accounting for 20.3% of all private industry deaths in 2013, or one in five workplace fatalities.