What you don’t know can be fatal: Safety First

The tragic 2007 fire at the Deutsche Bank Building in New York City exposed safety lapses and communication breakdowns at various levels.  It prompted renewed emphasis on “safety first”, and a major overhaul of the demolition and abatement processes in the City.

The Deutsche Bank Fire

A fire broke out on August 18, 2007 on the 17th floor of the Deutsche Bank building at 130 Liberty Street in New York City.  More than 100 firefighters suffered injuries and two lost their lives.  Manhattan District Attorney’s office investigated the fire and concluded that serious safety laws were either ignored or overlooked, and periodic inspection protocols were not followed.  The 41-story building was heavily damaged in the September 11 attacks and was shrouded in black netting over scaffolding at the time of the fire.

Deutsche Bank Building shrouded in black netting
Deutsche Bank Building shrouded in black netting 1

Simultaneous Asbestos Abatement and Demolition

Typically, demolition of a building does not start until asbestos abatement has been completed for the entire structure.  However, that was not the case here.  The contractor decided to conduct asbestos abatement and demolition simultaneously to expedite the process.  Demolition workers were removing the floors from top down as they were cleared of asbestos.  The abatement continued at the same time on lower floors.  Under NYC DEP’s regulations related to asbestos abatement, a contained area with negative air pressure is required during abatement to prevent toxic dust from spreading.  The containment is accomplished by by shrouding the building’s exterior and openings with solid plywood.    

Severely damaged Deutsche Bank Building after 9/11
Severely damaged Deutsche Bank Building after 9/11 2

Glaring Safety Lapses

The cause of the fire was believed to be a cigarette, possibly from workers dismantling the building.  The firefighters were brought to the staging area on the 15th floor as the black smoke started filling the floor.  They were unaware that the building’s standpipe had been cut and therefore they would not be able to get water in their hoses.  They were also unaware that the stair exits were blocked by plywood barricades to create a containment area for asbestos abatement.  It also appeared that established inspection protocols were not being followed. There was very little coordination or communication between three agencies responsible for various aspects of the project – FDNY, NYC DOB and NYC DEP. Such glaring errors, miscommunication and mismanagement ultimately proved fatal for two firefighters who lost their lives.

Aftermath of the fire: Safety First

The fatal fire and resulting investigation prompted renewed emphasis on “safety first”.  The investigation revealed that what you do not know matters as much as what you do know.  Had the workers known that the standpipe had been cut or that the stair exits were barricaded, they would have planned differently, possibly saving their lives.  It also prompted calls for improved communication between various agencies and a major overhaul of the asbestos abatement and demolition processes in the city.  In addition, situational awareness and safety training were made mandatory for workers as well as firefighters to prevent future disasters.

New York City's active construction sites
New York City’s active construction sites 3

Asbestos Technical Review Unit

NYC Department of Buildings and NYC Department of Environmental Protection established a joint program to review workplace safety plans as a part of the coordinated abatement and demolition permit process. The review unit was called Asbestos Technical Review Unit or ATRU, and it was setup at the NYC DEP headquarters building in Queens.  I was tapped to lead the unit as its Chief Plan Examiner.

Organizational Structure, Training and Outreach

What followed was an intensive effort to streamline application filing and plan review processes using an online platform called ARTS – Asbestos Reporting and Tracking System.   The ARTS platform allowed the joint DOB/DEP team to track, review, monitor and coordinate abatement and demolition activities throughout the city.  The team was tasked with reviewing workplace safety plans for major projects in the City such as the Madison Square Gardens, the United Nations Headquarters, the Rockefeller Center and countless other academic, commercial, hotel, residential and health facilities.  As a part of the outreach effort, the team conducted workshops and training at city agencies such as NYC Department of Design and Construction, School Construction Authority and NYC Housing Authority, as well as at trade conferences organized by groups such as the Building Owners and Managers Association and Environmental Contractors Association. I was awarded 2011 NYC DOB Commissioners’ Award for Excellence in Safety Education, however, the real reward is the recognition that countless people have benefited from the safety training and outreach.

  • Title image:  Deutsche Bank Building  fire.  By Rob Vincent – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2584361
  • 1 Deutsche Bank Building shrouded in black netting.  No machine-readable author provided. Renata3 assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
  • 2 Severely damaged Deutsche Bank Building after 9/11.  By Photo by Scott Murphy (http://members.aol.com/smurphy109), used with permission of the author.The original uploader was Censorwolf at English Wikipedia. – Source of this file was &quot;http://www.emporis.com/files/transfer/6/2003/11/231421.jpg&quot;.Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Kurpfalzbilder.de using CommonsHelper., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8015816
  • 3 New York City’s active construction sites.  Jenny Buccos, Creator – Crash Test World (TV series) and Founder of ProjectExplorer.org, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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