After a crane collapse last February killed a pedestrian in TriBeCa, Mayor Bill de Blasio formed a working group to study the city’s crane regulations. In June, the panel released its recommendations. Today, the City Council took the next step by holding a hearing on a large package of proposed crane and work site safety legislation, including bills unrelated to crane safety that tighten training and worksite requirements.
The 21-bill package, a priority of Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, has strong support from trades unions, which made their presence known inside and outside City Hall today, with rallies and long lines of workers waiting to get into the at-capacity hearing.
Construction is New York City’s deadliest industry. There were 12 deaths and 598 injuries requiring off-site medical attention at worksites regulated by the Department of Buildings in 2016, an increase over previous years. Worker falls comprised 30 percent of all accidents and half of all fatalities, according to Buildings Commissioner Rick Chandler, who offered a mix of support, critique, and opposition to the bills.
Mark-Viverito and Council Member Jumaane Williams, chair of the housing and buildings committee, made clear that the legislation is subject to revision. “We’re going to take back all the information that we’ve heard, impacts we may not have thought of, things we may not have seen, and craft the bills,” Williams said.
Williams kicked off the hearing with an attempt at balance. “These bills are not meant to mandate union or non-union construction labor,” he said. “The bills we are hearing today are meant to make construction safer.”
Other members swiftly dispensed with the pretense of neutrality toward non-union projects as they began questioning a panel of two union workers and two non-union workers. Council Member Elizabeth Crowley questioned the non-union workers about a death on a site owned by their employer, L+M Development Partners. That’s when the firm’s construction executive, Gerry Miceli, walked up behind his workers and said the questions were “inappropriate” for them to answer. (L+M contacted YIMBY after publication to say the death was medical in nature and was not construction-related.)
“One has to wonder, if you are not able to speak up at a City Council hearing… what kind of atmosphere must exist at your workplace if you want to speak up about a safety problem that might slow down a worksite or shut it down,” said Council Member Rory Lancman.
While council members were eager to demonstrate their support for union labor, the de Blasio administration dove into the details of the legislation during its testimony. Of the 21 bills, seven relate to crane safety, eight relate to construction safety and prevailing wage, three increase penalties for existing violations, and three add new reporting requirements.
The bill causing “the biggest stir,” as Williams put it, was Intro. 1447, a bill of his that is strongly backed by unions. The de Blasio administration opposes the bill’s requirement for construction workers to be part of an apprenticeship program registered with the state, saying it places a burden on smaller minority and women-owned business enterprises (M/WBEs) and is not directly related to improving safety.
The de Blasio administration does, however, back the bill’s measure to extend the requirement for workers on virtually all construction sites of at least four stories to have completed the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s 10-hour safety training. Currently, the city only requires this training for construction sites of at least 10 stories.
DOB opposed two bills adding strings to projects receiving city financial assistance: Crowley’s Intro. 744 would require these projects to pay prevailing wage, while Intro. 1432, from Council Member Ben Kallos, would require apprenticeship programs for projects receiving city financial assistance. DOB says the bills could increase the cost of affordable housing and burden M/WBEs.
The administration also expressed hesitation about Intro. 1448, which would require a site safety plan and coordinator for all projects of at least five stories, instead of the current requirement of at least 10 stories. DOB supports the intent but said there are not enough licensed and practicing site safety managers and coordinators to staff the additional projects.
DOB endorsed Intro. 1445, to require netting at floor openings for debris removal, as well as Intros. 1404 and 1419, which increase penalties for unlicensed plumbing and fire suppression. It expressed reservations about Intro. 1437, which increases fines for construction sites with excessive violations, saying its existing method of assessing serious violators is simpler and more effective.
DOB either backed or suggested small modifications to six of the seven crane safety bills, which require anemometers, data logging devices, GPS, and on-site lift directors, in addition to prohibiting cranes from operating when they are either more than 25 years old or the wind is above 30 miles per hour. The final crane safety bill, Intro. 1446, which would require licensing for a particular class of crane operator, has been found to be unworkable since it was recommended in June, DOB said.
The agency also opposed two reporting bills for their potential to divert resources or duplicate existing efforts: Intro. 81 would require closer coordination with OSHA, while Intro. 1436 would require an annual report on site safety managers and coordinators. DOB did, however, express interest in Intro. 1433, which would require additional indicators on injury and fatality reporting, such as union status or length of employment, data the agency said it cannot currently collect from employers.