Issue #29  •  Spring 2009

 

The Newsletter of the

Web Sling & Tie Down Association

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LEGAL CORNER

Aftermath of Crane Collapse in New York Shows the Validity of WSTDA Standards and Warnings

By Gerard Panaro, Howe & Hutton, WSTDA Legal Counsel

On March 15, 2008, a crane collapsed in New York City, resulting in the death of seven people. There was a second crane collapse on May 30, which killed two people. The March 15 accident was attributed to a break in the nylon slings. It led to the resignation of the New York City Buildings Commissioner; 21 claims being filed with the New York City Comptroller’s Office seeking $366 million for personal injury, property damage and wrongful death; a revision of the NYC rules on crane operations; OSHA’s assessing fines of $220,000 against the rigging company; passage of a new law in New York City that prohibits the use of nylon slings unless the manufacturer’s manual specifically states or recommends their use and mandates special padding to protect the slings from sharp edges; the arrest and indictment of a NYC Buildings Department inspector, who was charged with falsifying a record to show he visited the construction site when he hadn’t; and the indictment of the rigger and his company on seven counts for second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, reckless endangerment and second-degree assault.

(With respect to the arrest and charging of the inspector, a March 20, 2008 New York Times article (Chan, “City Inspector Is Charged in Crane Case”) stated that officials “said the failure to inspect the crane on March 4 was almost certainly not a factor in the deadly collapse, which officials think may have been caused by the failure of a nylon strap, which led to a large steel collar coming loose.”)

But what investigation of the accident also showed, quite vividly, is the wisdom, soundness, and validity of the guidance WSTDA has been issuing for decades, in its standards, manuals and warning labels about slings. That work goes on right now, in the Legal Resources Committee’s project to develop new warning labels with Applied Safety and Ergonomics, Inc. and Dr. Steven Young.

A March 18, 2008 article in the New York Times (Neuman, “Failure of Strap Is Suspected in Crane Collapse”) said that a “prime suspect” in the crane collapse was “a $50 piece of nylon webbing that investigators suspect may have broken while hoisting a six-ton piece of steel.” The article was accompanied by a photograph, showing the sling, with this caption: “A ragged nylon strap was hanging from the topmost of the crane’s three collars on Saturday.”

The article said investigators thought the accident occurred as workers were trying to install a steel collar around the crane’s tower. They were using manual winches hung from nylon slings. The collar broke free and the whole thing collapsed. The article said that investigators were alarmed by “the ragged, broken slings” and it cited construction safety experts who “warned that if the slings are worn or damaged, their strength may be greatly reduced.” Photographs show two manual winches attached to two yellow nylon slings. “The slings are ripped off and ragged at the ends.”

The article quoted three experts: 1) Bradley D. Closson, whose California firm investigates accidents involving cranes and hoists and who said it appeared that one of the slings had torn and the other had pulled apart, possibly after weight shifted on to it as the first gave way; 2) Paul S. Zorich, chairman of the committee on crane and sling safety standards of the ASME, whom the article quoted as saying that photographs suggested the sling may have been “grossly overloaded” and as adding: “It looks from the way that it failed that it virtually exploded”; and 3) Steven R. Dewey, president of All-Lifts (Albany New York), a construction sling manufacturer, whom the article quoted as saying “that slings generally fail only when they are cut or damaged.”

As noted, OSHA issued violations in connection with the crane collapse. According to another story in the New York Times (Rashbaum, “OSHA Issues Violations in Collapse of Crane”, Sep. 16, 2008), OSHA alleged that the rigging company “neglected to inspect the nylon slings it used to hoist a massive steel crane component aloft and was thus unaware that one was damaged”. OSHA proposed fines of $220,000. OSHA said that the company’s failure to inspect the nylon slings and notice pre-existing cuts and snags was one of three factors that led to the collapse. According to the article, the OSHA citations accused the rigging company of failing to follow the crane manufacturer’s specifications when raising the crane “and failing to use padding to protect the slings from the sharp edges of the crane part.” The article quoted the assistant secretary of labor for OSHA as saying: “This case illustrates in stark terms that failure to follow required procedures can have wide-ranging and catastrophic consequences.” (The company’s lawyer denied the company did anything wrong, stated an intention to defend against the citations and said they were issued “in error.”)

The article also reported that the area director for OSHA “said the inquiry had shown that three of the nylon slings were about two months old, and the agency was able to learn where they had been purchased. The fourth sling was believed to be about two years old and investigators were unable to track its provenance. ... forensic testing had determined that the fourth sling had cuts and tears before the collapse. OSHA investigators purchased similar slings, he said, and conducted extensive tests that in essence recreated the accident.”

As noted earlier, the rigger and his company were charged with manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, assault and reckless endangerment. According to another New York Times article (Eligon, “Rigger in Crane Collapse Pleads Not Guilty to Manslaughter,” January 05, 2009), the Manhattan district attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, alleged the following:

  • the construction manager at the site offered the rigging contractor “a set of fresh slings for the job”, but he refused, which decision led to the accident

  • the rigger used four of his own slings, “one of them badly worn”

  • when one of the slings snapped, a “collar” supporting the crane fell, causing the whole thing to topple over

  • one of the slings the rigger used had been previously damaged, with cuts and severe discoloration

  • the damage “would have been obvious to [the rigger] had he properly inspected the sling”

  • the sling “should not have been used at all”

  • the rigger used only four slings, when the manufacturer’s instructions said eight were required

  • he tied the sling around sharp metal edges of the crane without using protective padding, which would be a violation of the building code and federal regulations

  • the knot used to tie the slings to the crane, known as a choke, is the weakest of three knots typically used for jumping

(The rigger and his company pleaded not guilty. The Times article quoted his lawyer as saying: “For them to rely on one strap of dozens or maybe more than dozens that were at that scene, it remains to be seen how strong that evidence really is. Because Bill Rapetti would not look at a strap that was even slightly worn and put it on a crane.”)

Another consequence of the crane collapse was that on September 22, 2008, the mayor of New York, Michael R. Bloomberg, signed three new pieces of legislation dealing with crane operations in New York. One of these, Local Law Int. No. 795-A, amends the administrative code of New York City to add a new section which mandates:

3319.9 Slings. Slings shall be used in accordance with the following requirements and any rules promulgated by the commissioner.

3319.9.1 Use of nylon slings in conjunction with climber or tower crane erection, jumping, climbing, and dismantling. Nylon slings shall only be used in conjunction with climber or tower crane erection, jumping, climbing, and dismantling if the manufacturer’s manual specifically states or recommends the use of nylon slings. Nylon slings shall not be used unless softening mechanisms have been applied to all sharp edges.

3319.9.2 Discarded rope. Discarded rope shall not be used for slings.

A final note: the March 15, 2008 crane collapse served as the premise for the February 18, 2009 episode of Law & Order (NBC). As noted, however, by Linda Stasi, writing in the February 18, 2009 issue of the New York Post: “While tonight's episode does start with a crane accident that kills a worker, it drifts off into something totally and completely different - the medical condition of a disabled child, a caretaker who's in a coma from swallowing water after being pushed in a pool and then stealing of petty cash from the construction site to pay for care of the lady in the water-swallowing-induced coma. Talk about complicated!”

 

 


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