When construction cranes start falling down and people start dying – as happened in New York in 2008 – questions tend to get asked. When the answers come back, people tend to go to jail and regulations tend to be more rigidly enforced.
One set of regulations that is being more tightly enforced by the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) concerns supervisory personnel at exterior construction sites. Now, construction work on buildings 15 stories or taller must have a site safety manager on the job site full-time. A less expensive site safety coordinator is required at buildings nine to 14 stories tall, and an even less expensive construction superintendent is required for nine stories and less.
These certified inspectors are required to maintain site safety and permit logs, and perform inspections of such things as safety netting, sidewalk bridges and scaffold maintenance. Every project must also have a site safety plan approved by the Department of Buildings before work permits will be issued. The plans usually cost from $3,000 to $5,000.
While these tightened rules may or may not actually be saving lives, they are definitely adding costs – major costs – to exterior construction jobs at co-ops and condos across the city.
“It’s big money, it’s not small change,” says Gerard J. Picaso, president of the management company Gerard J. Picaso Inc. At one building he manages on the Upper West Side, the board members got ready to tackle an $860,000 waterproofing job – only to learn that they would have to come up with an additional $100,000 to meet the site safety requirements.
By appealing to the DOB, it’s possible for boards to save money by getting the inspector’s required on-site presence reduced from eight hours to as little as two hours per day. Inspectors earn roughly $60 per hour if they work full-time, up to $90 per hour if they work two hours a day.
“I don’t think you have to have somebody up there eight hours a day,” says Picaso. “There are times when the men are just on the roof working.”
Gene Ferrara, a principal at the engineering consulting firm JMA Consultants, agrees. “It’s such overkill on these poor buildings,” he says. “Two hours a day is more than sufficient. The money boards have to pay [for inspectors] is taking away from the work they should be doing on their buildings.”
Part of Ferrara’s job is educating managers and boards to these new realities – and to the risks they run if they choose to save money by ignoring them. “We give a seminar to managing agents,” Ferrara says, “alerting them to the fact that many people don’t know about these regulations. The restoration end of the business has not been required to follow these site-safety regulations until now. We tell them it’s mandatory and it’s being enforced. Fines used to be $250, maybe as much as $2,500. Now, they can go up to $25,000, and [DOB] can shut you down for months.”
Customarily, Ferrara says, the engineer or property manager will recommend a company that can help a building comply with the site-safety regulations. The board will then hire the company. Ancillary costs – permits, fees, site safety plans and inspectors, scaffolding, sidewalk bridges – can now equal, and in some cases surpass, the cost of actual construction work. “As a result,” Ferrara says, “we tell boards to do as much work at one time as possible.”
Tal Eyal, president of Cooper Square Project Management, agrees. “Inspectors are a huge percentage increase in cost for smaller jobs of $500,000 or less,” he says. “The problem is that nobody enforced these requirements until a few months ago. It’s a combination of politics, the crane collapses, and the fact that the city needs money. Conceptually, it makes some sense. But it’s expensive.”
There are some people who see the tight enforcement of site safety plans and the constant presence of on-site inspectors as the exact opposite of overkill. To these supporters, they’re life-savers.
“Fatalities in 2009 were reduced by 85 percent from 2008 [the year nine people died in the crane collapses],” notes Peter Amato, president of Site Safety, one of the largest of the dozen companies in the city that help buildings comply with safety regulations.
Actually, he’s a bit off. There was an 84 percent decline in fatalities – from 19 in 2008 to just 3 in 2009, according to the Department of Buildings. It’s possible to attribute the decline to a number of factors. For instance, the recession. There were 33 percent fewer construction permits issued in 2009 than in 2008.
DOB Commissioner Robert LiMandri prefers to see tightened enforcement as the cause of the lower death toll. “We have been working to change the culture of the construction industry – to put public safety ahead of profit – and our message is being heard,” he said in January.
Amato agrees. “Having these new rules is correlated directly to that reduction in fatalities,” he says. “It’s not overkill. You could have one scaffold rig not set properly, and you could have a fatality. If you don’t have these inspectors, you’re going to have problems.”
A selection of the companies that provide site safety managers, current as of February 2010:
• Certified Site Safety
• Site Safety
• New York Site Safety
• Total Safety Consulting
• NY Safety Zone
• Building Environmental Consultants
• Homeland Safety