Death, Taxes, and Red Tape

To the old saying that the only certainties in life are death and taxes, we can add a new certainty - bureaucracy.

In a story "City tightens its regulation and inspection of cranes," the International Herald Tribute reports:

New York City ordered broad changes on Tuesday to the way it inspects and regulates tower cranes, in the wake of a crane collapse that killed seven people on the East Side of Manhattan.

The Buildings Department said a city inspector will now have to be present every time a crane is erected, jumped or dismantled.

It also said it will require the project engineer who submitted the original permit application for a crane to produce a "written protocol" for each jump, including guidelines for how the work should be done. The engineer will have to inspect the crane to certify that it was built and assembled according to plans.

In addition, the department said it will require the lead contractor to hold a safety meeting with workers involved before each jumping operation. A Buildings Department inspector must monitor that meeting.

The accident occurred when sections were being added to the main support beam so that the crane could make higher lifts.  This is called "jumping the crane."

It is easy to understand why the building department would seize this opportunity to issue new regulations - seven people were killed on March 15 when the crane fell off the building during a jump.  If you read between the lines, however, you'll notice that the department is far more concerned for its own interests than for public safety.

The article stated two vital points:

  1. Although there were several theories as to why the crane collapsed, Robert LiMandri, the first Deputy Buildings Commissioner, said "the investigation would take months" and he declined to comment on the reason for the accident.
  2. He also said that the Building Department wanted to act quickly to ensure that cranes were operated safely.

Think about this for a moment.  The Deputy Building Commissioner said that determining the cause of the accident would take months, but he wanted to act quickly "to ensure that cranes were operated safely."

"We want to make sure that the industry takes the appropriate action to ensure that the erection and dismantling and jumping of cranes is done safely," he said.

It's as plain as the nose on your face that if the building department has no idea what went wrong, there's no way to know what "the appropriate action" is and no way that the Building Department can be sure that their new regulations will prevent any accidents in the future.  It's certain, however, that the new regulations will provide more work for bureaucrats and boost the agency budget.

Let's review the new regulations:

  • A city inspector will have to be present every time a crane is erected, jumped or dismantled.
  • The project engineer who submitted the original permit application for a crane will have to produce a "written protocol" for each jump.  This protocol must be reviewed by the Buildings Department.
  • The lead contractor must hold a safety meeting with workers involved before each jumping operation.  A Buildings Department inspector must monitor that meeting.

In order to justify their existence, if only to themselves, the Buildings Department staff will reject a certain percentage of the safety plans and meetings.  In addition, highly-paid construction workers will have to wait around until the Building Department inspector deigns to show up before they can get to work.

Who'll pay for all the time they waste waiting for the building inspector and for all the time they'll waste in new meetings?  We, the people, because we rent space in buildings or buy from businesses who rent space in buildings.  Anything that pushes up the costs of buildings comes right out of our pockets.

Back when Donald Trump had his construction people rebuild the Rockefeller Center skating rink for free, his major condition was that the city inspectors would have to agree to stay away from the project.  It was one thing to suffer their delays when he was getting paid for a project, he said, but he didn't want them in his way when he was working for free.

"But," you may ask, "who's to make sure the cranes are operated safely?"

That's simple - insurance companies.  Back when electricity was new, insurance agents noticed that electric appliances tended to start fires.  Red-blooded capitalists that they were, they didn't want houses burning down because burning houses cost them money.

Their solution - they set up Underwriter's Laboratories (insurance underwriters, underwriter's laboratory, get it?) whose UL symbol is found on just about every electrical appliance you buy.  They didn't require anyone to get an appliance approved by UL, they merely wrote into their policies that if a non-UL appliance in your house caught fire, they didn't have to pay off on your fire insurance.

This solution is already in process for this accident.  Nobody, but nobody, lets a construction crew hook a crane to his building unless the crane operator is insured up the wazoo, especially not in New York, litigation capital of the universe.  If a crane operator loses his insurance, he's out of business, pure and simple.

Enter the insurance underwriter.  Underwriters are the guys who pay if someone dumps a crane.  They're going to know what went wrong in this case.  There's no way it will take them months, not with 30 more cranes working in New York, each one ready to make the same mistake, if it was indeed a mistake, and cost them much wampum.

No, the insurance guys are going to find out what went wrong, and when they do, they'll make sure nobody ever does that again if it turns out to have been an avoidable mistake.  They won't pass a law, they won't need regulations, they won't have to have a bureaucrat attend every crane erection, they'll just pull the insurance of anybody who won't get with the program.

The problem is that adjusting insurance policies would merely work, it wouldn't create new jobs for bureaucrats.  The Building Department, in contrast, has taken this opportunity to create a lot more opportunities for its inspectors to shuffle new kinds of paper and attend new kinds of meeting.  Their new regulations might have some positive effect, although it's hard to see how years and years of insurance companies busting the chops of people who goof off have left many opportunities to reduce accidents merely by filling out more forms and having more meetings.

But to the certainties of death and taxes, we can add the certainty that even if the new rules turn out to be utterly worthless, these new rules will never be taken away, no matter how much they cost.

Centuries from now, when buildings are constructed from antigravity flying carpets, there'll still be a building inspector required in attendance each time the flying carpet lifts off for a "jump" - that is, if it's still possible to construct buildings in New York at all.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
The NY Times reports that the head of the city Buildings Department has been arrested for taking bribes to pass crane inspections and to ensure that people pass various examinations.

The department says that none of his supposed crimes have anything to do with the recent spate of crane accidents and that the department is hopelessly overworked and undermanned. This is the standard bureaucratic response to anything that goes wrong - we need more money.

The problem is that the city is trying to have a bureaucracy manage a high-tech construction system. Scragged has pointed out how independent labs like UL are a far better bet for this sort of thing.
June 7, 2008 8:03 PM
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