Saturday, May 3, 2008

Skyscraper Safety in NYC Post-9/11

For weeks, a group of student-reporters at New York University set out to understand and describe skyscraper safety in New York in the post-September 11, 2001 era. The product became the stories you see posted here. Members of Prof. Jan Barry’s Investigations in Depth class looked into everything from the width of stairwells in commercial buildings to evacuation procedures, from problems in high-rise residential buildings to recent construction-related deaths in the city. New Yorkers, visitors to the city and workers want to be safe not just inside buildings, but also while walking by buildings and working on the buildings. The 15-part report was produced by a diverse group of student-reporters (see bios after each story) over the course of a semester. We hope these stories will add substance to the discussion about skyscraper safety in New York City.

Clash of Past, Present and Future Offers Context

Glenn Corbett speaking in front of a class at NYU's Department of Journalism

Photo by Mike Weiss

By Jonathan Starkey

New York, May 2 - Glenn Corbett was driving north on the New Jersey turnpike just before 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001.

A professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, Corbett was taking his normal route toward the park-and-ride in North Bergen, N.J., to catch a Manhattan-bound bus when he saw smoke billowing from a building Downtown. The A.M. radio station Corbett checked for news was ominously silent. Once parked, Corbett boarded the bus and traveled about a mile east before the bus was stopped by officers blocking the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. Another park-and-ride bus had just made it through to New Jersey. Then, no traffic was allowed in or out of Manhattan. The city had been cordoned off by the officers. Corbett boarded the outbound bus that had stopped to pick up passengers, knowing nothing except that there was a major fire Downtown."I just went back to my firehouse because I didn't know what we would be doing," said Corbett, also a volunteer firefighter in Waldwick, N.J. "Some of the firefighters knew it immediately it was a terrorist attack."

This story, relying heavily on a 2005 report issued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, is meant to serve as a baseline for others that follow on this site. It is, simply, an introduction to issues investigated for this group of stories about skyscraper safety in New York City in the post-9/11 era.

In 1962, the Port of New York Authority awarded a contract to Yamasaki and Associates, a Troy, Mich.-based architectural firm led by Monoru Yamasaki, to design the World Trade Center. The centerpiece of the design would be two towers, envisioned as the flagship buildings of Lower Manhattan and, at 110 stories and about 1,350 feet tall each, the tallest buildings in the world.

In 1966, officials broke ground at the site. Construction would begin in 1968. On Dec. 6, 1968, New York City adopted new building codes that relaxed regulations related, among others, to stairwells and fireproofing, some of which had been in place since the adoption of codes after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in Greenwich Village. Locked doors, a lack of stairwells, faulty fire escapes and doors that opened in instead of out had trapped factory workers in the building, leading many to leap to their deaths below. Others died after a fire escape collapsed. In all, 146 factory workers died. The fire led to the first movement to make high-rise buildings safer, not just in New York City, but countrywide. Buildings with more than 2,500 square feet were required to have two staircases, for example, under the new codes. Another staircase was required for each additional floor of 5,000 square feet.

"Less restrictive" is how the NIST report described the 1968 codes, written largely to ease the costs of building Manhattan high-rises. Also, the loss of even a hundred square feet could mean the loss of thousands in annual rent in a high-rise office building. So developers petitioned New York City to relax the codes which they believed, according the NIST report, had not been revised to reflect technological advances. "The developers were arguing you were building bunkers and you've got way more safety than you need and its driving up costs," said Gregory Stein, a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and native of Long Island who recently studied the codes for a review published in November of last year. "They may have been right."
The answers included changing requirements for stairwells, requiring only three stairwells instead of six in New York buildings 10 stories and taller. Fire towers, stairwells with additional protection, were no longer required. Doors leading to stairwells were reduced in size to 36 inches, instead of 48 inches in the code that had been comprehensively revised last in 1938. Stairwell width requirements were 44 inches, 22 inches "per unit," unit meaning person, according to the code. Fireproofing standards were also relaxed and spray-on fireproofing was allowed. Structural columns were only required to last 3 hours instead of 4 hours, and floor framing, 2 hours instead of 3 hours.

Under normal circumstances in the city, though, the new code would not have affected the building for World Trade Center. Its plans had been submitted, and construction had begun, before the codes were adopted on Dec. 6. But the land was owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which existed outside the jurisdiction of the city and the state. Officials there, recognizing the "less restrictive" requirements in the 1968 code, told its consultants to make that the basis for the construction of the new World Trade Center.

The Twin Towers had stood for about 28 years on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. At 8:48 a.m. that morning, a Boeing 767 – American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston destined for Los Angeles –crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. When another jet - United Airlines Flight 175 with the same departure point and destination – crashed into the south tower 18 minutes later, an accident was all but ruled out. Tragedy played out for most Americans, including Corbett, on network news stations. Workers leaped from windows to escape the fire, and death by entrapment. Horrified onlookers screamed on the street below and told of the horror on network interviews. At 9:50 a.m., the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, like its feet had been swept out from under it. Networks broadcast the collapse. Thirty-nine minutes later, the north tower came down in a sea of ash that spread like a wave through Lower Manhattan, blanketing it in soot. Countless were dead, to be sure. Others were trapped. Firefighters who had entered the burning building to save those inside were among them. Ultimately, almost 3,000 people were killed, including 343 firefighters and paramedics and 60 police officers.

Corbett said it was a “few weeks” after the attacks on Sept. 11 when he understood the need for an investigation of the collapses. “With the large number of firefighter fatalities, we needed to understand how that happened,” he said.

Just days into October, 2001, Corbett was in his office at John Jay in Manhattan when he received a call from Joe Calderone, the Daily News' chief of investigations. Calderone later wrote an article titled "2 Seek Probe of Collapse," which the Daily News published on Oct. 30. Corbett and Charles Jennings, another professor at John Jay, were the first to call for a private investigation of the collapse. "There are fundamental building and fire safety issues" that need to be investigated, Corbett told the Daily News. "This cuts to the heart of the way buildings are built and how we evacuate them." Corbett later teamed with Sally Regenhard, the mother of a fallen firefighter, as a consultant in her Skyscraper Safety Campaign. The campaign, among other issues, calls for safe development of Port Authority land and more firefighter participation in authoring codes. Corbett and Regenhard helped lobby for the bill that prompted the NIST investigation.

A report issued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in September of 2005 told of how the fireproofing had been knocked off of the steel foundation when the jets crashed into both buildings and the fire, fueled by thousands of gallons of jet fuel, caused the floors to sag. The report did not place blame on the codes.

The destruction caused by the planes had rendered useless five of the six stairwells in the buildings. The NIST report said that the separation of the stairwells reduced their ability to evacuate people on higher floors because of the visibility loss related to fire. Deaths were lessened only, the NIST report noted, because the buildings were only one-third to one-half full at the time of the attacks. If the towers had been full, 40,000 people would have been spread throughout both buildings, and up to 14,000 would have been killed. It would have taken three hours to evacuate everyone from the buildings, even without the stairwells destroyed. Of the about 17,400 people spread throughout the buildings at the time of the attack, 87 percent survived, according to the report. Many of the survivors interviewed by NIST investigators cited previous evacuation drills as helpful. Most who survived were below the crash sites at the time of the attacks. Most who were above the crash sites – workers, diners at Windows on the World on floors 106 and 107 of the north tower – were trapped and perished.

Many remain convinced that stricter standards for stairwells and fireproofing could have saved lives. Still others say that preventing an attack of such proportions may be impossible. David A. Lucht was the director of Fire Safety Studies at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts at the time of the attacks. He is now retired. Lucht said most buildings cannot be protected against jets, especially those bound for cross-country trips full of fuel.

"If it weren't for the building being impacted by an airplane, I can't imagine a fire that would have taken it down," Lucht said. "I can't imagine anyone designing a building that would withstand against that. You'd have to stop building them that tall.”

Jonathan Starkey is a graduate student in New York University's department of journalism. He is a member in the first class of the Reporting the Nation Program. Starkey enrolled at NYU after three years as a reporter at two weekly papers and a small daily in Delaware, where he grew up and lived with his wife, Meghan, before moving to New York. His work has appeared in Newsday.

United Nation Headquarters : Safety Hazard?

By Sooyeon Kim

New York, May 2 -- The buildings of the World Trade Center were exempt from local codes. If this had not been so, more lives may have been saved when the buildings fell down. Seven years after the tragedy, another prominent and iconic building is exempt from the same safety codes : the United Nations Headquarters.

Last year, New York City officials were concerned enough that Mayor Michael Bloomberg sent a letter to the U.N., followed by an inspection by the New York Fire Department. It took nine months for the U.N. to allow this inspection. Once inside, the city discovered more than 866 fire code violations.

Because of concerns about possible terrorist attacks, neither the city nor the U.N. would disclose specifics about the violations. Required improvements included certifying a number of U.N. security personnel as fire directors, filing updated plans to address the remaining fire-code violations, and establishing a link with the city in case of fire.

In Mayor Bloomberg's letter to the U.N., he said that if the United Nations did not make improvements by early 2008, the city would ban all public school visits to the United Nations.

The United Nations building is a distinctive complex in New York City that has served as the headquarters of the U.N. since its completion in 1950. More than 4,500 employees work in the building. Located on an 18-acre site on the east side of Manhattan, it is an international zone belonging to all member states. Because the U.N. compound is technically international territory, it was exempt from state and federal regulations on worker and environmental safety, even with respect to smoking, until last year's inspection by the NYFD.

Since then, the U.N. has announced that they would cooperate with the city to adhere to the new standards.

"We don't have to follow the U.S law here," said Werner Schmidt, public information officer at the United Nations. "It was on a voluntary basis that we let the NYFD inspect our buildings, and since then we have fixed things."

But even with the inspections and the progress made by the U.N., the building is still far from being safe, employees said, as it lacks basic fire detectors, sprinklers on many floors, and safety training. According to employees, the conditions remain bad enough to make both employees and visitors feel insecure about where they are, especially having witnessed the 9/11 tragedy.

"I saw a couple of guys walking around to install some sprinklers and stuff after the inspection last year," said one uniformed security guard, "but the building is really old, inside particularly. Even though they fixed some of the things, the changes weren't very comprehensive."

"After 9/11, I'm not sure whether there have been any physical changes, but definitely there has been a mental one, which is, I feel, concern about working in that building in particular,” said Paul Zachary, who works in the 36th floor office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “It's such an iconic building, like the WTC, but I'm not sure if it's safe enough."

He added that people are able to smoke in the building "without any problem." His tone of voice implied this is not a good thing to do - cigarettes that end up trash cans, for instance, can start fire.

According to Schmidt, the U.N. public information officer, there are three areas in which the UN is addressing the violations that were issued by the FDNY in 2007. They have installed hundreds of smoke detectors; they are training a number of safety and security officers as FDNY-certified fire directors. And finally, by July, they will complete compartmentalization of the ventilation between parts of the buildings, so that in the case of an incident, the affected area can be isolated from other areas and smoke does not get transported throughout the complex.

In addition, the U.N. recently set up a new renovation plan, the Capital Master Plan. According to a UN report, it will focus on aspects of security, environmental and safety issues. They plan to also achieve a silver rating in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design(LEED), which is focused on energy efficiency moreso than on safety. But the U.N. has struggled for years to persuade the United States and the other 191 member nations to finance this multibillion-dollar renovation project. The Capital Master Plan has finally received funding but is not scheduled for completion until the end of 2014.

But the new renovation plan has yet to comfort many people in the building.

"It has been more than five years that they talked about the renovation plan, but I have no idea what would happen if we have a fire or something right now," said Tom, a worker for UNESCO who witheld his last name. "I'm not sure we have enough fire extinguishers on my floor, or if the stairs are wide enough to let all of the people get out quickly. It seems like it's so disturbing that we don't even think about it, and it is a real problem."

Many pointed out that in addition to fixing the building, the U.N. should have more safety training for the people working in the building. Employees stated that they are unaware of any organized plan or handbook for emergency evacuations, except for an email alert.

"I don't know how the fire alarm sounds. I'm not even sure we even actually have them," said Zachary, the man who works for the UNHCR on 36th floor. "I wouldn't say I noticed anything except the installation of fire sprinklers. Every thing is done piece by piece. But maybe they haven't gotten to my floor yet. I'd love to see that."

Sooyeon Kim was born in South Korea. While she attended Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul she volunteered as a math teacher in a poor community. She was also a reporter for a South East Asian migrant worker publication. As an exchange student at Western Washington University, she studied communication and the spicy taste of Indian curry. Kim interned at the Social Service Employees Union in New York City. She is currently a graduate journalism student at New York University, focusing on urban issues.

City's Trust in Cranes Dwindles in Wake of Recent Accidents

By Kathryn Carlson

New York, April 25 -- Sissy Siganoff panicked when she heard of the March 15 crane collapse that killed seven people and injured 24 others on Manhattan's Upper East Side. She was taken back to nearly two years ago when a 14-foot piece of crane pancaked the taxi she was riding in near Union Square.

Immediately after the recent crane collapse, a rattled Siganoff phoned her attorney, Howard Raphaelson. "She called feeling great anxiety and distress that the city could allow this type of disaster to occur again," said Raphaelson. "New York City is allowing construction disasters to occur one after another. Unfortunately for the families of the deceased in this recent disaster, Ms. Siganoff's warning was not enough. As is usually the case, the only proof that the City will react to is death."

According to Raphaelson, Siganoff has developed a severe fear of construction sites and overhead sidewalk bridges, forcing her to spend much of her time confined to her home. The crushed taxi now sits in the driver's brother's garage, reminding cabbie Chrislorm Paul of his brush with an 8,000-pound metal chunk that plunged within inches of his seat.

While Paul has gone back to driving taxis, the pair are in the midst of suing three of the companies involved in the maintenance and operation of the crane -- all of which are claiming they are "not at fault" because they were in compliance with the City's Building Code regulations.

Within days of the latest accident, city officials released a report describing the collapse stating that the crane was in the process of being "jumped" -- a technique where sections are added to the structure to raise it -- when a piece of a steel collar fell off the bracing and severed a lower portion of the crane, knocking out a set of braces and toppling the entire crane from the 18th floor of an East Manhattan residential building.

As reported by The New York Times, the number of crane-related accidents across the five boroughs increased from 2006 to 2007. There were eight accidents involving fatalities or injuries in 2007, up from five in 2006, and 21 incidents not involving fatalities or injuries, up from 14. The number of safety violations at high-rise construction sites has nearly doubled over the same period, according to a City report quoted in the New York Sun.

New York indeed stands tall, stretching lengthwise with its high-rise residential buildings and skyscrapers, peppered with the towering steel cranes that allow for upward development. But after the March 15 accident, cranes were no longer simply regarded as unaffecting machines -- and Siganoff was suddenly not so alone in her fears.

The crane collapse breached the public's trust in the stability of the more than 250 cranes that graze the city's skyline cranes. This accident and others -- including a December 2007 incident when seven tons of steel fell onto Murray Street and injured an architect, and a January 2008 accident when a construction worker fell 42 stories from a hotel on Spring Street -- has especially soured the relationship between cranes, and construction workers. Just as it's no longer unusual to see passersby avoiding the stigmatized structures, some construction workers are more wary about their close existence with cranes.

A crane operator of 22 years, who requested to be identified as J.M., was present at the site when Siganoff's taxi was flattened. "After seeing that accident, it was definitely a bit shaky for me," J.M. said, as he looked up at the crane on the site where he's now working at the corner of Bowery and Great Jones. "You just have to push past it. But after accidents like that and the recent one, there are guys now who don't want to go up in the towers anymore. It's more common than you'd think."

Another worker said he's also worried. "Right now I don't trust that everything's okay all the time," said Fernando Arajjo, a roofer with Roofers' Union Local No. 8. "You have to look out for your own safety, now I look for loose posts and screws. Because of the accidents, I feel like I have to be more careful."

Dr. Alberto Goldwaser, a psychiatrist with Forensic Psychiatric Associates, said this sort of reaction is not uncommon. "Even if a person was not there to experience a particular incident, a person is left with their own mind and imagination," Goldwaser said.

J.M. said trust among crewmembers is important in his line of work, adding that there's a small circle of crane operators and that it's an industry where everyone knows everyone. "A lot of guys won't work with the person who was in charge of the site for the recent accident," he said. "I'll only work with certain people. We're the ones up there. Everyday, people go up and down. These guys have families."

While it's largely the lead engineer's responsibility to make sure the crane is secure, J.M. said the crew looks out for each other and works together to ensure that the site is safe.

Following the March 15 collapse, the Buildings Department ordered some changes to the way the City inspects and regulates tower cranes. A City inspector must now be present every time a crane is erected, jumped, or dismantled, a project engineer must submit a written protocol for each jump, and nylon slings -- the tearing of which was thought to be involved in the most recent accident -- can only be used if they are specifically recommended by the crane manufacturer.

Some within the industry are already questioning the effectiveness of the new regulations. "When it comes to the new regulations, they're just assigning people to do things that they don't really have a clue about," J.M said. "What's more is that the people who are going to be on the hurting end of the new rules are the contractors, because they have a schedule to keep. We just did a jump on 57th Street and the City was late so there were 20 guys standing around waiting."

City Councilmember Tony Avella says these regulations are too little, too late, and points to the fact that no sweeping changes were made to crane-related building codes in the wake of the rise in accidents. "It's like the agency not only doesn't keep up with new industry practices, it's also doing no enforcement of the regulations that are already on the books," said Avella, who is a member of the Buildings and Housing Committee.

Avella said he became so frustrated with Building Commissioner Patricia Lancaster's inaction that he began calling for her resignation immediately after the most recent collapse. "This is not personal, but Commissioner Lancaster doesn't have the leadership capabilities or the political willpower to make changes. Enough is enough. She has to go."

After admitting to a City Council hearing that her department had incorrectly issued permits at the March 15 collapse site, Lancaster -- who held the position since 2002 -- stepped down April 23. While neither Mayor Michael Bloomberg nor Lancaster offered details of the resignation, both expressed confidence in Lancaster's deputy, Robert LiMandri, who will serve as interim commissioner.

The City Council's Buildings and Housing Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on April 29 to look further into the cause of the recent collapse and discuss the future of the city's cranes.

Kathryn Blaze Carlson is a graduate journalism student in the Reporting the Nation program at New York University. Prior to moving to the Big Apple, Kathryn worked as a correspondence writer in Canada's Prime Minister's Office. She earned an undergraduate degree in journalism with a minor in political science at Carleton University in Ottawa Canada, in conjunction with City University in London, England. Kathryn, a National Press Foundation Fellow, grew up on the Canadian prairies and has worked for publications ranging from a national magazine to a community newspaper to an online news outlet.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Problem with High-Rise Residences

by Sarah Tressler

New York, May 2 -- Residents of high-rise apartment buildings in New York should be prepared to save themselves in case of an emergency – because high-rise residential buildings are not required to provide residents with a comprehensive evacuation procedure.

The news may come as a bit of a surprise for penthouse-apartment dwellers. If you reside on the 35th floor of a building, do you know how you’ll escape if the 34th floor is going up in flames? Many of those in such apartments do not. In fact, most are simply advised to stay in their apartment in case of a fire.

“The best thing to do is to shut your door and pray,” said one New York fire fighter, who asked to remain anonymous. “We’ll be there as soon as we can, but until then, you want to keep the fire contained. So just keep your doors shut.”

Indeed, the Office of Emergency Management Web site instructs residents to do just that.

“If you live in a high-rise residential building, and the fire is not in your apartment, stay inside rather than entering smoke-filled hallways,” the Web site says. “Keep your windows closed, especially if the fire is in the apartment below.”

For one high-rise resident, the fire didn’t become apparent until it was well underway. Liz McNamara, who lives on the 12th floor of The Crest, a 36-story high-rise apartment at 63 Wall St., was spending a sunny day indoors when she thought she heard rain. Confused, she went to the window to find clear skies. And the “rain” she was hearing?

A fire two floors above her had set off the building’s sprinkler system, which was causing a flood in the apartment above hers. Soon, the water was coming through the ceiling into her apartment as well.

“I didn’t know there was a fire in the building until water started pouring from the ceiling,” she said. When she ran into the hall to notify the building manager, she finally heard the fire alarms going off in the stair well.

Fortunately for Liz (and the other residents of The Crest on Wall Street), the building is equipped with a sprinkler system. Without the sprinklers, McNamara could have been dealing with much more serious problems than her soaking wet furniture.

“New York was around 20 years behind the model codes in terms of requiring sprinklers in residential high-rises,” said Charles Jennings, Ph.D., a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he also received a Master of Science in fire protection management. Jennings points out that the sprinkler systems basically mitigate most evacuation problems by limiting the fire’s ability to grow and spread. New York finally decreed that all high-rise residential buildings constructed need to be equipped with sprinkler systems in 1999. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) claims that, no more than two people have ever been killed as a result of a fire, excluding explosions, when the building had a fully functioning sprinkler system.

Still, said Jennings, improvements can be made.

“What residential high-rises need is public address capability, so that residents can get instructions during an emergency,” said Jennings. “This was never required.”

Jennings suggested that residential buildings should be required to be outfitted with two-way communication capability – like that which is currently required in office buildings.

A representative from the Office of Emergency Management for New York City made a simple, somewhat frightening conclusion for those who seek an evacuation procedure for high-rise residences: “There’s nothing in terms of a wide-scale one for apartment buildings – individuals need to be prepare themselves for evacuation.”

Protecting Yourself in Case of a Fire: Tips from the FDNY

1. Have a Fire Escape Plan

Have a family meeting to discuss what to do if there is a fire. Practice your plan.

2. Use Approved Window Gates

Only use approved window gates. Do not use a padlock which will prevent your escape from a fire.

3. Decide on a Meeting Place Outside of the Building

By deciding on a meeting place outside and away from the building, you will know if everyone has gotten out safely.

4. Send the Alarm

Dial 911 to report a fire. Use the local Fire Alarm Box.

5. Walk Quickly, Don't Panic

Feel the door on your way out with the back of your hand. If the door is hot, do not open. Close door behind you to slow the spread of fire.

6. Use the Stairs

Don't use the elevator. It may stop and trap you.Try to place one hand in contact with the wall. This may prevent you from getting lost.

7. Stay Low and Go

If there's smoke, escape by staying very low to the ground where air is cooler.

8. Open Window if Trapped

Open window at top to let out heat and smoke; and at the bottom to breathe.If you cannot get out, wave a sheet out the window.

9. Don't Go Back

Do not go back into a fire for anything! Your life is your MOST valuable possession.

Sarah Lynn Tressler

Sarah is a grad student at NYU's school of journalism. She has a B.A. in communications from the University of Houston, where she was a columnist for the school's paper. Her work has appeared in The Houston Chronicle and The Epoch Times.

Things Fall Apart: Workers' Safety

By Lance Steagall

New York, May 1 – A collapsed crane, a failed safety strap, a broken scaffold; we're only four months into 2008 and already 13 construction workers have died on New York City job-sites.

In spite of this string of worker deaths, pro-business groups are lobbying to gut what many deem essential labor protection: Section 240 of the New York State Labor Law. Commonly known as "the Scaffold Law," it requires that employers provide the proper safety equipment, and ensures injured workers the right to sue when that equipment is not provided.

In early April, at the intersection of Livingston and Schermerhorn - a downtown Brooklyn jobsite - worker Miguel Lagos, 32, was taking a smoke break. He wore his hardhat and protective eyeglasses on, still clipped into the harness he uses when he’s eight-stories up.

“If there is a law that can help make less-dangerous workplaces, why would anyone want to take that away?” he asked. Without skipping a beat he answered his own question – “money. It’s gotta be about the money.”

Mike Elmendorf, the New York State Director of the National Federation of Independent Business, lobbies Albany for the repeal of the Scaffold Law, and acknowledges that money is the motivating factor. But “this isn’t about trying to erode protection for workers,” he said. “it’s about fairness. It’s about an antiquated statute that’s been perverted into a cash machine for trial lawyers.”

Elmendorf and like-minded advocates believe that Section 240 holds business owners liable for any accident, regardless of the circumstances. “Under this statute,” said Elmendorf, “you could show up to work drunk, go up on a beam, dance a polka, swan dive into the ground, and it isn’t your fault.”

Paul Fernandes, the Chief of Staff at the Building and Construction Trades Council, said that isn’t the case.

“The Scaffold law simply says the contractor is absolutely responsible for providing a safe workplace,” said Fernandes. “If you remove that responsibility from the contractor, that gives them a crack that allows them to open the door to unsafe job sites. We have a hard enough time getting compliance as it is.”

The case history of Section 240 isn't so black and white.

In 2001, Sergeant v. Murphy Family Trust, Kevin Sergeant won a lawsuit for a work-site accident. As the court overview states, “plaintiff [Sergeant] stepped onto yellow insulation where a roof panel had been removed. The insulation had no underlying support, and plaintiff fell at least 21 feet to the floor below. At the emergency room, a blood test revealed that plaintiff’s blood alcohol level was .27.”

While a .27 blood alcohol level is enough to warrant a DUI arrest, it did not prevent Sergeant from winning his case. Because the proper safety devices were not provided, he was entitled to damages regardless of his intoxication.

A 2003 case, Blake v. Neighborhood Housing Services of New York, offers another perspective; a sober worker, Rupert Blake, was injured while scraping rust from a window. The jury found that all proper safety equipment had been provided in working order, and Blake had only personal negligence to blame. Neighborhood Housing Services was not held liable.

Other case law reinforces these two examples; if the proper safety equipment is provided, negligent workers have no case. If it’s not, all bets are off.

But those working to gut Section 240 are also concerned with inflated insurance prices, perhaps more so than potential lawsuits.

“The Scaffold Law is driving up the cost of liability insurance and in some cases making it impossible to even secure liability coverage [in New York City],” said Elmendorf. “By some estimates, it adds $10,000 to the cost of building a house in upstate New York.”

Ari Gross, of Gross & Co. Insurance, agreed that premiums for liability insurance can be prohibitively expensive.

“I’ve tried to get quotes,” he said, “and the replies were ‘the minimum insurance premium is $50,000’.” That is in contrast to, say, painter’s insurance, which Gross said was, "typically around $3,500."

Although Gross acknowledged that “one claim under the Scaffold Law can be disastrous for an insurance company,” he had no proof that the Scaffold Law was directly responsible for the high costs.

Paul Fernandes of the Building and Construction Trades Council has been contacting insurance providers for years, requesting that proof. He said he has yet to receive any.

“We’ve waited five to seven years for the insurance industry to provide it,” said Fernandes, “and they can’t provide a single shred.”

So far, Albany is staying out of the fight, seemingly content with leaving the law as is.

“They’d be crazy to take away that law,” said Lagos, the Brooklyn construction worker. “This city wants to build and build, and that's fine, but they've got to take care of us [the workers].”

(Click on image for a brief history of Section 240(1) of New York State Labor Law)

(Click play for a supplemental piece on workers' safety in NYC)

Lance Steagall is a student in New York University's Global and Joint Studies Program, with concentrations in Journalism and Latin American Studies. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2005, he moved to Concepcion, Chile, where he worked as an English professor at a private language institute. Since 2004 he has been actively involved in a political website he started with three other Northwestern alumni,

Tall Buildings, Skinny Stairs?

By Andrea Galyean

New York, May 2--

How wide are you?

I just the measured the widest part of me (my shoulders) and I’m 16 inches across. Add a couple inches on each side for normal movement, and I need at least 20 inches of width to walk down an office hallway or stairwell. But I’m a good bit smaller than the average Manhattan office worker. In fact, a salesman at the Wall Street location of the popular Men’s Wearhouse stores reports that the shoulders on the most commonly sold suit size in his shop (a 48) are 23 inches across when filled out by an actual person.

So if this suit-wearing average guy and I wanted to walk down a stairwell at the same time – if there was a fire in a high-rise, for instance, and we were trying to get out – we’d need 47 stairwell inches. Two people closer to his size would need 54 inches. But what if, instead of people filing downstairs side-by-side, there were also firefighters coming up? Firefighters wear big suits and carry a lot of gear, so they take up more room. How wide would that stairwell need to be?

That question is at the heart of a dispute about New York City building codes, which are being revised this year. Real estate development groups say the old code is wide enough, but some building and fire safety experts disagree.

The New York standards in place since 1938 require that most stairwells in commercial high-rises be 44 inches wide. That gives two lanes of traffic using 22 inches each. But those requirements are based on assumptions about the size and speed of occupants and are designed for partial evacuations – when only a few floors of a building are affected - and they have rarely been tested at higher capacities.

The largest building evacuation in New York City was when 15,400 people escaped from the World Trade Center (WTC) towers after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. That event demonstrated how the assumptions of the building codes translated into real-life.

John Labriola, a WTC survivor who used the stairs to escape from the 71st floor of the north tower, contributed his recollections of that day to the Smithsonian Museum. “We walked down two by two,” Labriola said in his statement. “Whenever necessary we would press ourselves into a single file line to let [injured] people get by… Around the 35th floor we started meeting a steady stream of firefighters walking up and had to press into single file again.”

Labriola also took photographs during the evacuation. One of the most famous, taken within the stairwell, shows civilians flattened against the wall as firefighters pass. The stairwells in the north tower were 44 inches wide.

Glenn Corbett, a fire sciences professor at Manhattan’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a consultant to the New York Department of Buildings committee that proposed post-WTC changes to the building code, thought the message was clear. "Out of all the issues, one of the no-brainers was the issue of stairway width," said Corbett. He refers to Labriola’s images as evidence; "If you look at those photos, with firefighters coming up and civilians coming down, the people have to turn sideways."

National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) analyzed the WTC collapse and made 30 recommendations about how high-rise buildings might be stronger, safer, and easier to get out of. NIST investigators cited Labriola’s photographs and testimony from other survivors in advising that high-rise buildings use wider stairwells. They found that WTC evacuees moved twice as slowly as had been estimated and concluded that if the towers, which were less than half full on September 11, had been fully occupied, 14,000 people would have died. “To achieve a significantly faster total evacuation at full capacity would have required increases in egress capacity – the number and width of exits and stairways,” said lead NIST investigator Dr. S. Shyam Sunder in 2005.

That was not the first such proposal. Jake Pauls, a fire safety specialist from Silver Springs, Maryland, has conducted years of research on building evacuations. He concluded in 2005 that the 44-inch minimum “was flawed, and known to be flawed a few decades ago.” Indeed, a report sponsored by NIST in 1995 said that the assumptions about how long it takes people to get out of a skyscraper were wrong. That report came from another high-profile evacuation: the escape from the WTC after it was bombed in 1993. And in 2004, a former WTC director told the 9/11 Commission that the stairwells in the towers should have been wider.

Based on his studies, Pauls proposed a new standard minimum of 56 inches. As Corbett explained, "56 inches gives you the ability for counterflow, the ability for people to pass. It's an obvious solution. Any four-year-old can figure that out."

The New York Buildings Department agreed – for a while. As late as May 2007, proposed code revisions included wider stairwells, but the version due to go into effect this year returned to the old standard. What happened? This is where the numbers change from inches and people to square footage and cash.

In New York, especially in landlocked Manhattan, the size of a building is limited by the size of the lot – and those lots are expensive. So developers try to maximize the square footage available for rent.

When the Buildings Department was drafting the new building code, it “requested NIST’s input and expertise in five specific areas,” including stair widths, according to a 2005 press release. But the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), whose members own 80 percent of North American office space, “blocked every attempt” to implement NIST’s suggestion, according to Corbett. An advocacy memo from BOMA to its members asked them to work “at the state and local level to ensure that the NIST recommendations are not used as justification for introducing unnecessary new requirements in state and local building codes.”

Representatives of BOMA and the Real Estate Board of New York volunteered on the city committee to decide egress requirements for the new building code, where they successfully fought to keep the old width rather than give up floor space for stairs.

Woody Pascal, chief of staff to Councilman Erik Martin Dilan, who chairs the City Council’s Housing and Buildings Committee, recalls the debate. “There was an issue with the stairs, yes. Basically, if the stairs were wider, the rooms would be smaller.”

The Buildings Department notes that the codes specify a minimum only and says developers can always build wider stairs, as the Durst Organization is doing with the new Bank of America building in Midtown. But few are willing to forgo potential profits in the current market, where luxury offices on Wall Street can rent for several hundred thousand dollars per square foot per year.

Frederic Schwarz, a Manhattan-based architect, has worked on a number of high-rise projects in recent years. He said developers “want to do the right things, but only to a point." He was a leader in the early efforts to redesign the WTC site and thinks a lot about building safety. But he doesn’t even try to design wider stairs for commercial clients. “Forget it,” he said, “That’s not even a conversation. You’re fighting for every inch.”

And so, the 2008 New York City Building Codes will go into effect on July 1. The required minimum width for exit stairwells in high-rises will be: 44 inches.

Andrea Galyean is a graduate journalism student at NYU. She holds a B.A. in theatre from the University of Maine and has a complicated job history. She was, most recently, the Outreach Manager for Phoenix Public Art. Her work has appeared in the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Arts. She takes the stairs.