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Safety first
(Published April 23, 2001)

It is ludicrous that officials initially tried to blame 25-mph wind gusts for the thundering late-night collapse April 17 of part of the new Washington Convention Center under construction at Mount Vernon Square. Steel beams that need to support tons of weight do not routinely give way to winds that aren’t even strong enough to be classified as a gale.

While we hesitate to unduly alarm the public about the future safety of a building that is central to much of the city’s current downtown revitalization plan, we are concerned about misguided public relations attempts to downplay the significance of what was actually a major accident.

The incident – currently under investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – could seriously delay final completion of the city’s largest construction project, according to some published reports, jeopardizing already-booked conventions and increasing the cost of what is the most expensive building project ever financed by D.C. taxpayers.

By the grace of God, the apparently inadequately fastened steel beams came crashing down at an hour when no construction workers were on site to be injured. Had it occurred during the workday, dozens of workers might have been critically injured or killed.

Our initial inquiry to the Washington Convention Center Authority on the morning of April 18 brought an erroneous assertion that television reports were exaggerating the extent of the collapse when they reported a 90-foot by 108-foot section was involved. No, we were told, it was more like 20 feet by 20 feet. Later, officials acknowledged that the collapsed section actually measured about 90 feet by 180 feet. To put those dimensions in perspective, the same space could accommodate about four typical D.C. rowhouses.

Were D.C. safety inspectors on the job when the collapsed section was being built? No. Because the government claims it can’t afford to hire enough inspectors, safety inspections at construction sites – including the convention center – are being conducted by private inspectors. The city recently expanded this 10-year-old program, which essentially allows the building industry to inspect itself – in the name of expediency.

Safety, rather than expediency, needs to be the priority.

Nobody – whether a commercial builder or a homeowner – should have to wait weeks for a required safety inspection. But those inspectors should work for the city, or under the direct supervision of the city, not the builders.

Ensuring the public’s safety is the government’s responsibility.

The D.C. government should consider creating a "user fee" for builders that covers the appropriate cost of hiring safety inspectors, or contracting for their services, to conduct timely inspections. Builders should be willing to pay to ensure that their work is promptly inspected for safety.

Someone is already paying for this now, whether taxpayers or the contractors themselves. In the case of the $756 million convention center, the public is footing the bill for inspectors who are not D.C. government employees.

The city needs to take responsibility for the safety of members of the public who use these buildings once they are completed. The specter of the majestic new convention center collapsing, with thousands inside, is a horror no one can afford. We need to invest in safety now.


Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator