Council hears from construction-safety experts

Posted: June 28, 2013

A series of safety experts from the building trade unions and the construction industry assured Philadelphia City Council on Thursday that demolition and construction work can be done safely when responsible building owners and contractors hire well-trained workers and make safety issues their priority.

On the second day of hearings into the Center City building collapse that killed six people this month, that left some City Council members wrestling with a difficult issue: how to legislate responsible behavior.

"This is all about the money," said Councilman James Kenney, implicitly criticizing the owner of the collapsed building, Richard Basciano. He said Basciano picked the low bidder to handle the demolition job at 22d and Market Streets when other bids were three times higher.

"You can't get off on the cheap," Kenney said. "Training takes money, certification takes money, qualifications take money. . . . When we start talking about both construction and demolition in this city, it's all about costs.

" 'These guys cost too much.' Well, these guys are trained, these guys are certified, these guys are drug-tested," he said. "These guys know what they're doing. . . . If you want people working in the city of Philadelphia who don't know what they're doing, running heavy equipment, taking down buildings . . . we're crazy to allow that to go on because the price is cheaper."

Kenney said he favored a prequalification system, requiring contractors handling demolition or other construction work to win city certification to handle different jobs - a process that the city government has followed for city-paid demolition work but not for private contractors.

"Unfortunately, this honor system does not work for us," said Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez, chairman of Council's committee on licenses and inspections.

"We can put some minimal standards in place, but ultimately people - the owners and the contractors - are responsible and no amount of resources can make people honest if they choose not to be. . . . We can and we will put additional protocols in place but people have to make good choices."

She expressed concern that an extensive prequalification process could create unfair barriers for small businesses. "Whatever we require has to be accessible to all," Sánchez said.

She cited a training program created under the Street administration's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative to help small contractors qualify for demolition work.

Bruce Crawley and Anthony Fullard, who developed the "emerging contractors program" for the African American Chamber of Commerce, said it allowed 66 small business people, most but not all minorities, to get 270 hours of classroom instruction in demolition practices as well as business management and related fields, plus hands-on training in the field.

In the end, Crawley said, its graduates successfully bid for and completed 201 residential demolitions, with a sum total of one injured worker, who hurt a toe.


Contact Bob Warner at 215-854-5885 or warnerb@phillynews.com.

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