OSHA Partners with City of Philadelphia to Prevent Future Demolition Tragedies

Imagine walking into a retail store to do some shopping. You notice the building next door is being demolished to make way for a new and better structure. You are happy to see this much-needed redevelopment in the community you love. What you probably do not think about is the danger that demolition project could pose to you and your fellow shoppers.

A routine scenario like this turned to catastrophe the morning of June 5, 2013, when an aging, long-vacant four-story building being demolished on historic Market Street in downtown Philadelphia collapsed onto the one-story Salvation Army Thrift Store next door. Six1 people were killed - four shoppers and two thrift store employees - and 14 people were injured. Those killed included the 24-year-old daughter of Philadelphia's City Treasurer and a 35-year-old cashier working her very first day at the store. The most seriously injured was a 61-year-old woman buried in the rubble for 12 hours before she was found and pulled out alive during rescue operations. As a result of being trapped for so long, she required amputation of both legs.

Following an extensive investigation of the collapse, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued willful and serious citations to the two demolition contractors. The collapse was traced back to removal of critical structural supports that left a wall unsupported. Other construction safety violations included failing to demolish the building from the top down and failing to have an engineering survey of the structure. Criminal charges including murder and manslaughter were filed by the Philadelphia District Attorney.

Unfortunately, the Philadelphia catastrophe is not an isolated incident. On June 20, 2014, a construction worker involved in demolishing an old Blockbuster Video building in New Jersey was trapped and killed when the last standing wall collapsed on top of him. Six months earlier, a 25-year-old construction worker in Chicago was struck and killed by pieces of falling concrete while conducting renovations on a shopping mall is the kind of construction demolition activity taking place in communities throughout the United States.

Strengthening Contractor, Worker, and City Inspector Requirements.

In the wake of the 2013, Market Street demolition tragedy, Mayor Michael Nutter and the Philadelphia City Council moved rapidly to institute sweeping, significant changes in the city's demolition standards and building construction code. Included were additional contractor requirements and specific penalties for contractors who violate the requirements. Contractors now must submit, as part of their demolition permit application, a site safety demolition plan or complete engineering survey developed by a "competent person" who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards at the job site.

The five ordinances passed unanimously by Philadelphia's City Council contain numerous additional safety provisions. Fire Department battalion chiefs have been given new authority to issue stop work orders at construction or demolition sites whenever they detect a violation of the Fire Code or any other condition which presents an immediate danger to life or property. And city code inspectors are now required to refer any observation of worker safety violations to OSHA.

Partnering for Worker Protection and Public Safety.

Uncontrolled collapses during demolition operations are preventable. Dating back to the early 2000's, OSHA and the City of Philadelphia have worked cooperatively, with significant success, to improve construction safety and health. During one such effort, an OSHA Strategic Partnership known as the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, the City of Philadelphia, with the support of OSHA's Region III Philadelphia Area Office, worked with small demolition contractors to demolish approximately 3,500 properties. Not one life was lost.

The cooperative commitment between OSHA and the City of Philadelphia has produced a new interagency collaboration with the City's Department of Licenses and Inspections (L & I). It aims to enhance contractor oversight and prevent future catastrophes by employing three distinct strategies:

  1. Improved Communications and Referrals

    OSHA's Region III Philadelphia Area Office and the City's L&I have developed and implemented a comprehensive interagency referral system to address safety and health issues on construction projects throughout the City. A point of contact in each agency coordinates and tracks referral activities and other proactive cooperative efforts. L&I inspectors are contacting OSHA when they are at a construction site and identify serious hazards, especially when OSHA's "Focus Four" are identified. These hazards include: Falls, Caught-In or Caught-Between (especially during Excavations), Struck By, and Electrocutions. These L&I referrals are helping OSHA identify significant cases and track severe violators. OSHA, in turn, is keeping L&I informed when federal inspectors identify hazardous worksites.

    The data tell an impressive story: Between October 1, 2013 and September 30, 2014, this collaboration produced approximately 65 referrals. In 90-92%, OSHA issued citations, with an average of 3.5 violations cited per inspection. What OSHA and L&I agree is most important: As a result of OSHA's referral-assisted activity and the stop work orders L&I has employed in imminent danger situations, approximately 170 workers were removed from harm's way, that is, potentially fatal construction activities. L&I is using the information being gathered to proactively reduce future fatalities. For example, when the records reveal particular construction employers repeatedly violating safety and health regulations, L&I is sharing this information with Philadelphia's permit office.

  2. Focused Training and Cross-Training

    In order to enhance hazard awareness for Philadelphia's building inspection supervisors and field inspectors, OSHA and L&I worked together to develop an impressive training plan. City inspectors are getting regular training, taught by OSHA Area Office and Regional safety and health professionals, to help them better understand, recognize, and prevent demolition hazards as well as general construction hazards. Particular attention is being paid to OSHA's Construction Focus Four Hazards that have been linked to the vast majority of construction fatalities and injuries.

    Training began in January 2014, when 60 Philadelphia L&I building inspectors and construction inspectors participated in classroom training on excavation safety. This was followed in April 2014, by 60 L&I staff attending training on OSHA's Construction Focus Four Hazards, with particular emphasis on fall hazards and working at elevations. Over a period of three days in June 2014, OSHA presented the OSHA #3500 Demolition Course to about 20 participants, half of them L&I staff, the other half OSHA safety and health compliance personnel. This course, developed by the OSHA Training Institute, is designed specifically for enforcement personnel who have responsibility for construction demolition safety and health. Course highlights include scope and application of the OSHA standard, terminology, processes, and equipment. Special emphasis is placed on the most hazardous demolition activities. Thanks to the cooperation of a local contractor, the class included a demolition site visit and real-life overview of the demolition process. Then, in November 2014, 50 L&I supervisors and field inspectors attended a half-day intensive training session on demolition safety that included a review of Philadelphia's recently enacted revisions to its construction regulations, OSHA demolition standards, and the basics of demolition hazard recognition.

    With quarterly training continuing, and L&I choosing topics that will address the needs of experienced as well as new inspectors, city employees are now better able to protect themselves during construction inspections, and also protect the construction workers and general public they serve.

  3. Annual Reporting System

    OSHA's Philadelphia Area Office and the City's L&I have agreed to generate an annual report, with input from both partners, which will encompass the activities and achievements of the collaborative relationship. The report will include hard data reflecting numbers of interactions and the results of inter-agency enforcement activities.

    The collaboration is on target and continuing. Looking ahead, OSHA and its Philadelphia partners plan to meet annually to determine the effectiveness of the relationship, areas needing improvement, and the potential for expanding into other collaborations. Replicating the OSHA-City of Philadelphia partnership is a high priority, because Philadelphia is not unique. In aging cities and smaller communities across the United States, thousands of imminently dangerous older buildings and other structures pose serious hazards to workers and the public. Philadelphia is applying the lessons it is learning and now is working with New York City and Chicago to help identify best practices and strategies those cities can use to improve their internal policies and laws.

There is a critical need for every city and county in the United States to have inspectors with knowledge of demolition hazards before something bad happens. OSHA is ready and willing to facilitate, support, and engage with communities. As a starting point, OSHA has posted numerous valuable resources on its website at http://www.osha.gov/doc/topics/demolition/index.html. These materials are available for anyone to use. For more information on how OSHA can help you safeguard your communities and working men and women during demolition and other construction activity, contact us at oshademolition@dol.gov or contact your Local OSHA Area Office.

1 A seventh fatality has since been attributed to the building collapse. The death, which occurred more than a year after the building collapse, has been confirmed by a forensic pathologist. The victim, a shopper in the thrift store, sustained multiple injuries from being trapped in debris for about one hour after the collapse.