Charlotte crane accident raises questions over construction zone safety

CHARLOTTE -- At the moment a load of beams fell from a crane lifting them up the 48-story Wachovia tower, safety workers had stopped traffic and pedestrians from moving past the construction site on South Tryon Street.

As beams struck glass panels, shards scattered to the ground. Workers fled, and traffic started moving into the path of falling debris, said project manager Curt Rigney.

Details emerging about Monday's accident raise questions about who is responsible for protecting people and vehicles around construction sites. The mishap is the second in less than a week to fling broken glass onto busy uptown streets.

There were no serious injuries reported in either case, although on Monday one beam struck a school bus.

But there is deadly potential in the heavy materials routinely hoisted overhead. State safety officials are investigating Monday's accident.

A Charlotte Department of Transportation handbook includes rules for contractors on such issues as traffic control, notification requirements for road-closures and allowing access to businesses along the road, according to the department's Web site.

The "pedestrian considerations" section of the Work Area Traffic Control Handbook says: "A canopied walkway may be required to protect pedestrians from falling debris." It does not say what circumstances require such a canopy.

Around the Wachovia site, sidewalks are closed, as are street lanes. That's what the general contractor, Batson-Cook Construction, wanted, Rigney said.

"It's safer for the pedestrians and safer for us," he said.

Sidewalks across South Tryon were littered with glass in both accidents. But they're not part of the job, and Rigney said Batson has no authority or requirement to erect canopies there.

Last week, workers inside the building were installing glass panels, which can weigh up to 250 pounds. They broke one panel, perhaps by bumping it against a wall. The pieces flew to the ground.

Rigney, who has about 15 years in the industry, characterized the two incidents as freak accidents.

This year, officials in New York and Miami tightened rules governing crane operations after a trio of fatal crane accidents. The crane industry in North Carolina is largely self-regulated.

Rigney said establishing a clear zone beneath a crane load is up to the contractor. The state safety official leading the investigation has said rules only mandate that loads not be lifted over employees' heads.

The city transportation department governs the public right-of-way along streets uptown, including those that border construction sites. Construction companies lease space from the city when they operate equipment in the right-of-way, Linda Durrett, a department spokeswoman said in an e-mail. She said she was unable to answer further questions Tuesday about regulating construction sites.

"The City expects lease holders to operate in a safe and proper manner at all times," Durrett wrote.