Crain's New York Don't take chances with New York City's crane operators by Ben Kallos
Operating a crane is an inherently dangerous job, and the risks are significantly greater in a densely populated urban environment like New York City. Nationwide, approximately 89 crane-related fatalities occurred per year in construction work and between the years of 1984 and 1994—502 fatalities in 479 crane accidents. With numbers like these, safety is paramount. Because of New York City’s uniquely difficult conditions, it is critical that we have the most stringent examination and licensing procedure for individuals permitted to operate cranes.
For decades, New York City has had such a rigorous system; it is required under our building code. Crane operators licensed by the Department of Buildings are some of the best in the world. That is not luck, but the result of a longstanding crane licensing regulatory scheme. The agency developed and administered a written examination for applicants for crane operator licenses that specifically tests them on New York City's conditions and requirements. It also gave a practical examination to see how applicants operated a crane, and required that before being eligible to even sit for an examination that applicants have a certain number of years’ experience working in New York City under the supervision of a licensed crane operator.
This tried-and-tested licensing scheme was threatened when the Bloomberg administration tried to ignore the experience requirements mandated by the building code and implemented Buildings Department rules to allow crane operators from other cities, who had no experience operating a crane in New York City or any knowledge of New York City regulations, to be licensed here. Thankfully, the DOB was sued, and recently the New York State Supreme Court found the new rules to be illegal.
As a member of the City Council representing the Upper East Side, I have gotten to know members of our community who suffered the loss of loved ones in the tragic crane accident on May 30, 2008, at 91st Street and First Avenue, that resulted in the death of two New Yorkers and demolished parts of nearby buildings. This accident occurred just a couple of months after a crane collapsed at 51st Street between First and Second avenues, killing seven and injuring 24. Neither of these accidents resulted from crane-operator error.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has put forth a new plan to improve crane safety, and while he should be commended for that, his plan is lacking in a few critical areas. For starters, he has chosen to appeal the recent New York Supreme Court decision that preserves the city’s longstanding local-experience requirement for crane operators. Crane operators licensed in other parts of the country should not be able to operate cranes in New York based solely on their licenses from those other jurisdictions.
A recent Popular Mechanics article quotes James Pritchett of Crane Experts International describing the importance of knowledge of local conditions in preventing accidents. “Whether you're working in downtown New York or on a windmill in Arizona,” Pritchett says, “every site carries its own hazards, which is another reason generic regulations simply can't handle the diversity of conditions."
He adds, “That is where you have lift supervisors—management and other people who know the area."
New York City is a unique urban environment with more high-rise buildings than any city in the nation. No U.S. city is as congested or densely populated as New York, making crane operation here a great risk not only to operators but to surrounding buildings and pedestrians. The Department of Buildings has recognized this. It would only make sense to ensure crane operators continue to be trained and licensed in New York to prevent future crane accidents and fatalities.
The city should do more to ensure that it maintains control over the examination process for individuals applying to become crane operators. The city should be requiring more qualifications of crane-license applicants, not less, and tougher examinations, not weaker. No building is worth the loss of a human life. The most recent crane tragedy on Feb. 5, in which a bystander was killed in lower Manhattan, has caused all New Yorkers to pay greater attention to this vital safety issue. Let's make sure efforts to solve this problem are well thought out and consider the opinions of experts, or we risk another tragedy that could be prevented.