Mercifully no one was badly hurt, but what happened Monday was scary: A load of beams fell from a crane at the Wachovia construction site uptown at Stonewall and South Tryon, and one bounced onto a passing school bus. The beams hit glass panels, showering the sidewalk with broken glass – for the second time in a week.
The school bus was empty of students, and the driver didn't suffer life-threatening injuries. But the events exposed some gaps in safety regulations affecting cranes, crowded urban settings and the streets and sidewalks nearby.
An N.C. Labor Department investigation isn't finished, so it's not known what caused the beams to fall or whether anyone will be punished. Given the department's history of overly accommodating oversight and minimal penalties, we're not holding our breath.
But here's a huge problem: North Carolina's safety regulations for cranes are about 40 years old, too old in some cases even to apply to today's equipment.
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The department is proposing stricter regulations. So is the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The state follows OSHA rules, or it can adopt stricter ones. New federal regulations, in the works for years, won't be effective for months. So it's to North Carolina's credit to be moving ahead on another track. Its standards should be in place by spring.
But a whole other safety issue exists: People in the streets and sidewalks. OSHA rules apply to workers, not passers-by.
In Charlotte, a developer closing a street lane or sidewalk must lease right-of-way from the city. The lease requires “reasonably safe and proper conditions.” The city says it monitors sites daily.
Nevertheless, falling glass – and falling beams – suggest more precautions are needed. Some passers-by tell of flagmen stopping motorists, but not pedestrians, when overhead materials are moved. The sidewalk is across Tryon and not part of the construction site, so the developer can't be required to put up a covered sidewalk. In this case, the city and the developer should partner to cover the sidewalk. No one needs a broken glass shower. Further, contractor Batson-Cook should get stricter about pedestrian safety – and the city should insist. Finally, the state should move speedily on its crane safety rules. The public – and construction workers – deserve a safer environment.