Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Crane companies, have you no shame? NY Times: why should they?

Posted by metaphorical on 12 June 2008

I hate to agree with the Bill O’Reillys of the world, but sometimes the NY Times is out of its liberal mind. An article Sunday bordered on the Onionesque. Be patient, dear reader, because it takes a few paragraphs to set the entire context. Fortunately, the story is as interesting as a train wreck, except this one fell 10 stories out of the sky.

Crane Turntable’s 2nd Life Is an Issue in Collapse

In the spring of 2007, a bolt of lightning struck a crane at 46th Street and Eighth Avenue, damaging a crucial part – the turntable at the top. Over the weeks that followed, the turntable’s bearings began to grind, and the stress apparently caused a crack in the surrounding steel that grew so wide that a worker noticed daylight glinting through it, according to an engineering report for the crane’s owner.

The aftermath of a crane collapse May 30 in Manhattan that killed two and displaced hundreds of residents.

The discovery set off alarm bells in the city’s Buildings Department, where officials feared that the operator’s cab sitting atop the turntable might fall onto the street in the theater district, people familiar with the episode say. Bethany Klein, the head of the department’s crane division at the time, climbed the 18-story tower to examine the damage. On the weekend of May 19 last year, the cracked turntable was removed with the help of two other cranes.

Accident averted, city officials believed.

Or was it?

Investigators now believe that the rebuilt turntable wound up in a tower crane involved in a fatal accident at 91st Street and First Avenue on May 30, according to NationsBuilders Insurance Services, the insurer for the crane owner. In that accident, a weld in the rebuilt turntable apparently failed, causing the top of the crane to break away and fall on a 23-story building across 91st Street, killing two workers. It was the kind of disaster that city officials had feared might happen on 46th Street last year.

City investigators and prosecutors are asking whether Buildings Department officials properly monitored the journey of that turntable after it was damaged by lightning. Did the department tell the crane’s owner, New York Crane and Equipment, to scrap or repair the turntable, or did it give the company other instructions? And did the city inspect the repaired equipment and its welds before it was returned to service on 91st Street?

The article goes on to detail the high turnover at the Cranes and Derricks Unit of the Buildings Department; Friday’s arrest of James Delayo, the acting chief inspector for the unit, “charged with taking bribes to approve cranes under his review”; and the March 19th arrest of a crane inspector who was “charged with faking a report that he had visited a construction crane at that site on March 4.”

Does the Times really believe that the party primarily responsible for a crane’s safety is the city?

Perhaps the Times would like a refresher course on Ethics 101, followed up by Civics 102. And this time, maybe let’s don’t let the newspaper of record put them on pass/fail.

Ethics 101 would tell the Times that a construction company has an absolute moral responsibility to not kill passers-by and its own employees with faulty equipment.

How do you operate a crane and not check it every day for cracks that might not yet be large enough for sunlight to shine through? How do you write a front-page feature article for a leading metopolitan daily and skip right past that question?

Civics 102 would tell the Times that that responsibility is not mitigated by incompetent, negligent, or corrupt city agencies.

City laws, agencies, and bureaucrats can only provide a second layer of defense against the risks inherent in operating a multi-ton piece of machinery dozens of meters over the heads of dozens of people. But the city is to the construction company what a copyeditor is to a writer. When someone thinks a story is libelous, it’s not the copyeditor they go after.

And here’s where I start to sound a little like a right-wing radio commentator.

Maybe the city ought to get out of the business of inspecting buildings and construction sites and cranes in the first place. How much knowledge and expertise does a Cranes and Derricks Unit inspector have anyway? At the salaries they must make, how much expertise can be buying? There’s a reason these guys are being charged with taking bribes. Meanwhile, there are plenty of engineers in this town who can be certified to do these inspections, engineers with decades of knowledge and experience.

My late father was civil and mechanical engineer who worked on one kind of project (in his case power plants) for 30 years. He was a licensed P.E. in the State of New York. He has plenty of counterparts in apartment building construction, bridge repair, highway upgrades, you name it. Why don’t we limit the city’s involvement to certifying these people, and then requiring construction sites to pay for inspections that the city schedules.

The problem with government doing much more than that is that businesses jump on the government involvement as a way of getting off some or all of the moral hook. When a few hundred thousand pounds of bad chopped meat enters the fast-food distribution channels, everyone along the supply chain turns around and says, “we followed all the relevant federal guidelines, and our meat was examined and certified to be okay by the USDA.”

Maybe we should just get the federal government out of the meat inspection business, or the crane inspection business, if it means we can start charging business executives with murder when their negligence, corruption, and incompetence starts killing people.

One Response to “Crane companies, have you no shame? NY Times: why should they?”

  1. Rachel said

    I’m right there with you. It’s a pervasive phenomenon, having those who don’t know a job managing or monitoring those who actually DO it. And what’s worse, is that given the struggling economy and the shortage of jobs, people are inclined to suck it up and suffer the consequences while hoping for the best. A week or so ago, I talked with a construction worker who had been working on the building when the crane fell at 91st St. He’s been here from Ireland for two years, was grateful to have had a job, but said that “everyone on the site knew that was a bad crane”. But really, what were his options? Now a couple of his friends are dead and he’s out of work anyway.

    And as much as I want some money-grubbing unethical bureaucrat to cool his heels in jail for the next two or three decades, a) that’s not going to happen, and more importantly, b) it still wouldn’t fix the problem.

    On site safely needs to be restructured from the bottom up, and having an expert monitor that which s/he knows best seems like a ridiculously simple answer. But you wanna bet that hell will freeze over before it becomes standard practice?

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