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A matter of safety.

Despite the unparalleled bounty of 1998 for the real estate industry from a super sales market to the first new construction boom in decades it was an abysmal year for safety.

Starting with Yan Zhen Zhao's tragic accident at PS 131 a year ago, when the 16-year-old was killed by a falling brick that had been holding down a roof tarp - illegally - this was a year to rival Chicken-Little's worst nightmares.

Fortunately, most of the falling bricks hit the ground, not the people. But there were casualties, as well as an inordinate amount of worker accidents, too. On June 24th, two terrified maintenance workers were rescued after dangling from the 36th floor of 245 Park Avenue. Earlier in the year, a construction worker at 160 West 24th Street was not so lucky.

In March, 1998, Local Law 11/98 - expanding on Local Law 10/80 - was passed as an answer to the dangers of flying masonry. And today, half of the resolutions are still being re-hashed and reviewed by the Department of Buildings' legal department and the Special Task Force appointed to expedite the process.

Nevertheless, it would be silly to claim there is a single solution to the problem of building safety, because so many components are involved, including exterior maintenance, interior maintenance - i.e., the recent public cry for sprinklers in residential hallways and the industry itself. But there are several courses of action that could influence greater safety measures, starting within my own field.

Licensing of contractors with a strict set of standards would raise the bar for construction professionals. For example, my firm's focus is on exterior restoration, including roofing and waterproofing, so we maintain a special rigger's license and Certificates of Fitness on all our fire equipment. Something so rudimentary should be mandatory, and all it entails is attending some well-rehearsed classes and passing an examination to qualify. It's one simple step that could save many lives. The same applies to site safety licenses. In fact, there should be a licensed site safety audit posted periodically on every construction site, yet it's not required.

It's no secret that the Department of Buildings is somewhat understaffed and enforcement of rules is difficult, but if Local Law 11 is finally passed in its completion, there will be fewer gray areas about safety criteria for building exteriors.

Some people may construe my emphasis on safety as self-serving - after all, I work in one of the sectors that will most benefit from stricter laws - but I also live in a city, with my wife and baby, in which I have second thoughts about walking under certain sidewalk sheds because I know they are poorly constructed and carrying too much weight. Moreover, it infuriates me to read about simple, preventable accidents.

As professionals, we owe it to our industry to produce safe environments; as businesspersons, additional safety measures are preventives for expensive litigation; and as New Yorkers, it would be nice to truly feel comfortable about walking down the street.
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Title Annotation:building safety
Author:Bellet, Wayne
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Jan 27, 1999
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