Shoddy sidewalk sheds pose risk amid faltering city enforcement efforts

On a May 2012 afternoon in the East Village, Rafal Nieznalski took a path followed by countless New Yorkers every day: right under a sidewalk shed, the wood plank and steel-pipe contraptions designed to protect pedestrians from falling construction debris.

But Nieznalski says that as he walked under the shed, debris slammed into his head.

“I felt ‘boom,’ I grabbed my head, and after a few seconds I was out,” recalled Nieznalski, who has filed an ongoing lawsuit against the companies responsible for the shed. Nieznalski was taken to Bellevue Hospital, where he received eight stitches.

sidewalk shed

A sidewalk shed in South Harlem. Photo: Sebastien Malo

A few months later, in Red Hook, Brooklyn, 4-year-old Laila Davis was rushed from a housing project to the emergency room at New York Presbyterian Hospital after she touched a sidewalk shed carrying a live electrical voltage and was thrown off her feet.

Davis survived but suffered injuries including chest pain. She also had difficulty breathing according to a lawsuit filed by her family. The suit is ongoing.

Sidewalk sheds have become a fixture of New York City’s landscape, with the number of permits more than doubling since 1998 to nearly 10,000.

The sheds are mandated by the city whenever construction, remodeling or demolition is taking place and several private contractors specialize in building the structures.

But the city’s effort to ensure that the structures are safe and effective has faltered, a New York World investigation found.

Among the findings:

● A special Scaffold Safety Team, created in late 2007 by the Bloomberg administration to monitor construction scaffolds and sidewalks sheds, has seen its staff reduced from 14 field inspectors in 2008 to 9 in 2013.
● The number of violations issued for faulty sheds has plummeted, from 855 in 2009 to 337 in 2013.
● At least 39 pedestrians and construction workers have been injured since January 2011 in accidents involving sidewalk sheds

The Department of Buildings defended its efforts.

“The Department’s Scaffold Safety Team responds to complaints and conducts proactive inspections of scaffolds and sidewalk sheds throughout the City,” Kelly Magee, a DOB spokesperson, said. “In 2013, this specialized unit issued more than 2,100 ECB [Environmental Control Board] violations totaling more than $2.3 million in penalties. This unit performs over 9,000 inspections a year to help ensure that property owners and contractors maintain their sheds and scaffolds in a safe and lawful manner at all times.”

The 2,100 violations issued by the team include violations of all types, not just issues related to sidewalk sheds.

By comparison, in 2009 the team performed nearly 12,700 inspections and issued 4,840 violations of all types according to a DOB report.

The safety team was created in 2007 and, within a few months, the city announced a 30-day inspection sweep after a series of accidents, including the collapse of several scaffolds during windy days in early 2008.

The city issued violations against 28 percent of the more than 1,600 sidewalk sheds and supported scaffolds inspected during the sweep.

Then in 2009, the Bloomberg administration launched a contest to create a safer and more attractive sidewalk shed design. When the winning proposal, the “Urban Umbrella,” was announced a year later, Bloomberg said the new design “would improve public safety,” although adoption of the design was recommended and not required.

The Urban Umbrella, a safer more attractive design not currently used.

The Urban Umbrella, a safer and more attractive design not currently used. Photo: Courtesy of Agencie Group.

In the years since the creation of the Scaffold Safety Team and the unveiling of the new design funding and manpower for the team has been cut. And the Urban Umbrella is nowhere to be seen.

Meanwhile, the number of sidewalk shed permits issued by the Department of Buildings has risen to record levels — nearly 10,000 in 2013. The growth came, in part, due to local law 11, a 1998 law which led to an increase in sidewalk sheds through tougher building facade repair requirements.

The Urban Umbrella isn’t used, at least in part, because it costs up to 25 percent more than the 60-year-old design it was intended to replace.

“When it comes time to do restoration or rehabilitation work on the building it’s up to the property owner to install the bridge to comply with local law 11, and their agenda tends to be what is the cheapest to do that,” Andrés Cortés, an architect and principal at Agencie Group, the firm behind the Urban Umbrella, said. “The cheapest way to do that is to hire the least expensive sidewalk shed.”

There are currently no Urban Umbrellas sidewalk sheds in use in New York City, according to Cortés.

In 2012 the city cut funding for the DOB Scaffold Safety Team from $1.2 million to just over $500,000. Funding has remained at that level ever since.

DOB officials said that the cut was the result of the recession-induced budget crunch. However, the budgets for several other specialty teams including the Cranes and Derricks inspection squad and the Building Enforcement Safety Team remained intact.

Robert deMarco, who left the DOB in November 2010 and now trains DOB inspectors, said there were only three inspectors on the job for several months in 2011, a claim the DOB denies.

“It’s just impossible for them to cover all five boroughs comprehensively with that amount of inspectors,” deMarco said. “Even now they’re still spread thin.”

While each city inspector currently conducts 3 or 4 inspections a day, the daily responsibility for ensuring the structural integrity of the sheds rests with the private contractors and licensees who build and maintain them.

The standards described in the code reflect basic engineering principles, said Richard Miller, a structural engineer and owner of MRES Engineering PC, a private consulting firm: “There are three components that make a structure stand up: strength, stability and stiffness. Any one of them that’s out of whack can lead to a failure.”

The lightest version of a ten by ten foot shed as described in the building code should withstand the weight of roughly four cars.

But Miller says he’s seen too many instances of safety standards being flouted by scaffold firms.

He recalls an incident in the East Village two years ago, when the engineer who designed the shed set up by a contractor ignored his warning against a major flaw in the design that greatly weakened a portion of the shed.

“I objected, I said ‘This is not accepted structural theory’,” Miller said. “The answer I got back is, ‘Well this is how we always do it’.”

Beginning in October the city will require sidewalk shed permit holders to designate a “qualified” person to conduct an inspection every six months and prepare an inspection report.

City regulations already require contractors to inspect the structural integrity of sidewalk sheds each day and maintain daily maintenance logs.

John Filingeri, a former member of the DOB Scaffold Safety Team, says he did request daily maintenance logs for sidewalk sheds — but never when a sidewalk shed stood idle.

“The code does say that it has to be maintained every day by the responsible party. But the way the inspectors looked at it is that if there wasn’t anybody working on a job, we’d let it go until we actually had a contractor working on the site,” he said.

As for pedestrians, “If something happens to fall, it’s sad and it is an issue, but it happens,” Filingeri said. “Whoever got hit is going to sue the building, sue the scaffold company, and they’ll make whatever they settle for.”

Since the beginning of 2011 at least 29 pedestrians and 10 construction workers have suffered injuries as a result of accidents involving sidewalk sheds, a New York World review of city records, lawsuits, and media reports revealed.

While no deaths have been recorded over the last four years, victims have suffered serious injuries, including concussions and electric shock.

In most cases reviewed by the World, the shed collapse occurred during the construction or removal of the shed, as the result of falling construction debris, or from high winds.

William Roberts, 31, is suing sidewalk shed contractor Colgate Scaffolding after a pipe and a light fixture fell from a shed and struck him in the head on June 28, 2012.

Robert’s head split open and he was taken to Woodhull Hospital where staples were required to close the wound. Since the incident, he has dealt with severe headaches and neck pain, according to his attorney, Ilya Novofastovsky.

Colgate Scaffolding declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

There are also instances when sidewalk sheds fail but no one happened to be walking under the shed at the time.

The World found a dozen cases between 2012 and 2013 when portions of a sidewalk shed collapsed without injury to pedestrians or workers.

For instance, on February 1, 2013, a sidewalk shed partially collapsed outside of the Hanson Place Central Methodist Church in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn.

The DOB issued a violation against the church for failing to maintain the shed, and the inspector noted that additional sections of the shed were in danger of collapsing.

After spending a 20-year career advising private-sector clients in New York City on sheds, Miller lives by this principle: “I always cross the street to avoid walking under sheds,” he said. “And I recommend others do the same.”

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