Monday, June 09, 2008

New York's Crane Collapses: Who Inspects the Inspectors?

New York City is undergoing something of a building boom, and building in large cities means tower cranes—those improbably spindly structures that symbolize major construction these days. Last May 30, a crane in use at 91st Street in Manhattan collapsed, killing the operator and another construction worker, seriously injuring a third, and damaging several buildings as it fell to the street below. What made it even worse is that this collapse was the second in less than three months. On March 15, another crane collapsed in midtown Manhattan, killing seven. And in both cases, it appears that the inspection process designed to prevent just such accidents was flawed, to say the least.

What do crane inspectors do? What pressures do they experience in their jobs? And what changes can be made in the system to improve it?

On paper, at least, New York City appears to have a rigorous and exacting system of required inspections for the erection and use of tower cranes. Every contractor has to have a permit to operate a crane, the operators themselves must be licensed by passing tests or showing an equivalent amount of specialized experience, and the cranes themselves must be inspected periodically by crane inspectors, who are city employees. And most of the time, the cranes operate without major accidents or injuries. But it looks like all is not as it should be with the inspection process.

In the March accident, a crane inspector was arrested under the suspicion that he falsified a statement saying he inspected the crane on March 4 that later collapsed. And just last Friday, the acting chief inspector of cranes, James Delayo, was arrested on charges that he took bribes to supply a construction firm with answers to the crane operator's test, as well as to report inspections on cranes that he never in fact inspected. But even if all the inspectors involved had done their jobs, it appears that the May collapse might not have been prevented. A New York Times reporter found that the collapsed crane's turntable was a rebuilt unit that had earlier been struck by lightning and welded back together. It is entirely possible that a hidden defect in the weld contributed to the accident, although further investigations will have to be conducted to confirm that theory. If so, a routine visual inspection might not have revealed any problem.

Inspectors, quality control engineers, traffic policemen—the job of all these people is to make sure that what is supposed to happen actually happens, and what isn't supposed to happen, doesn't. And if they see problems, or potential problems, they have the authority to act. Any time a person holds authority over others, there is the temptation to abuse that authority. And it is no news that from time to time, inspectors take bribes instead of doing the harder thing—actually making the inspection or penalizing a crane operator for careless actions.

A chronic problem with government-operated departments of inspection—whether the things inspected are cranes, X-ray machines in dentists' offices, or sides of beef—is a shortage of inspectors. The benefits of inspection are largely invisible, while the negative consequences of inadequate inspection are blatted all over the news media. The political tendency is therefore to fund inspection agencies just enough to prevent too-frequent accidents, but not so much that the inspected industries and businesses get sore from being plagued with swarms of supernumerary inspectors. The technical abilities required of an inspector can be equal to or greater than his or her counterpart in private enterprise, but government pay is always less than in the private sector, adding to the temptation to bribery.

Some states have decided to outsource certain kinds of inspection to private third-party firms. This leaves the free market to decide the pay rates and numbers of inspectors, but has its own problems as well. How do you insure that a private inspection firm, which is basically a kind of consulting operation, is doing its job? Hire government inspectors to inspect the inspectors? Whether an inspector works for a public or private firm, the issue always comes down to professional integrity: does the inspector know enough technically to do a good inspection? And if so, do they have the moral fiber to resist the temptations to bribery, shortcuts, and other forms of professional corruption?

In today's short-term bottom-line world, the kind of long-term relationships and institutional reputations needed for inspection systems to work well can be hard to establish. But it is too easy to forget that lives are at stake. New York City appears to be trying a short-term fix by prosecuting some crane inspectors who were alleged to be on the take. While that is certainly something that needs to be done, one wonders whether corruption in the process may be endemic, and the arrests happened only in response to headlines. Is privatization a better approach? Maybe, but as in so many other aspects of engineering, you have to work with the materials, culture, and political environment you have, and privatization in certain political circles is a dirty word. Here's hoping that however it gets done, the system of crane inspections in New York improves to the point that seeing those giant towers swinging across the skyline will be only a source of pride, and not of fear.

Sources: I used reports from the New York Times on the crane accidents and bribery arrests available at and A technical description of the March 15 collapse is available at

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