Worker safety was questioned at a hotel construction site in Downtown Ithaca after this photo surfaced. OSHA is investigating the concerns. (Provided Photo)

ITHACA, N.Y. — By now, many of our more tech-savvy readers have seen the photos: a rather fearless construction worker laying down planking on scaffolding at the Hilton Canopy hotel site in Downtown Ithaca. With no harness, no guardrails and no other “fall arrest apparatus” as it’s called in legal parlance, the project work several floors above the ground have sparked a number of alarmed emails questioning the safety of crews on the site.

The Ithaca Voice reached out to several relevant parties with regard to the photos to see if it was a safety violation. The official answer: maybe.

The regional office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is aware of the situation and upon contact this morning, asked for any materials that Voice staff had on file. In a follow-up this afternoon, the duty office explained that OSHA will not comment except to say that a safety compliance officer was at the property earlier today, and that it is “an active, ongoing investigation.”

An investigation may take up to six months to complete.

Photo courtesy of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center.
Photo courtesy of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center.

William H. Lane (WHL) Inc. of Binghamton is the general contractor for the hotel project, and the erection of scaffolding had been subcontracted to CFI Sales & Service, Inc. (CFI) of Pennsylvania, who specializes in scaffolding work for construction sites, and according to contractor representative John Kabat, has an extensive record of work with William H. Lane and its competitors.

“As you are aware, photos were taken of a CFI employee working on the erection of frame scaffold at the west elevation of the building and provided to OSHA’s Syracuse area office last Friday, August 17th. A Safety Compliance Officer was summoned to the site that day to investigate the matter and determine if the actions of the frame scaffold erecting crew were in violation of any construction workplace standards established to protect the employee. The Compliance Officer (CO) met with both CFI and WHL personnel during the inspection.  The CO discussed procedures established and followed by CFI. He also took pictures of the scaffolding and various measurements of the set-up. The CO requested CFI follow-up the inspection by providing him with their Fall Arrest System Safety Policy and their Scaffolding Erecting and Dismantling Policy. Both items have been provided,” said Kabat in a written statement on behalf of the project team.

By that statement and OSHA’s, it’s clear that a safety compliance officer was dispatched not once, but twice, once on Friday and once today. But saying there’s been a violation is surprisingly subjective, a judgement call.

Photo courtesy of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center.
Photo courtesy of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center.

“It is important to note CFI is responsible to comply with the applicable OSHA Standards for erecting and dismantling scaffolds, and the use of fall protection by their employees; OSHA 1926.451(g)(2) states ‘Effective September 2, 1997, the employer shall have a competent person determine the feasibility and safety of providing fall protection for employees erecting or dismantling supported scaffolds. Employers are required to provide fall protection for employees erecting or dismantling supported scaffolds where the installation and use of such protection is feasible and does not create a greater hazard.’ Per CFI’s program they have a specific section as related to frame scaffolding that provides guidelines on training and other requirements including the need to provide a minimum of scaffold grade planks for an erector to work from where it may not be feasibly safe to install proper fall protection or safely wear a fall arrest system. CFI’s installers are trained as a “Competent Person” and as a “Trained Scaffold Erector”. CFI is confident the photograph showing the employee erecting the scaffolding is within the requirements established per the stated standard and per their written program. CFI did not hear back from the Compliance Officer on Monday, August 20th and recognizes ‘feasibly safe’ is open to interpretation. CFI strongly believes their erection procedures were being properly followed thus meeting the OSHA scaffold erection requirements.”

In other words, the erection and deconstruction of scaffolds is expected to use fall safety apparatus if feasible and if it doesn’t create a greater hazard. There is no hard and fast rule. As long as the construction worker is trained to do the task and uses a sufficient size and strength of boards while laying the planking down, it’s OK, and a fall arrest system may not need to be in place.

Todd Bruer, President of the Tompkins-Cortland Building & Construction Trades Council, made it clear that he believes a safety issue is present.

“The man on the top has no safety apparatus whatsoever, no harness…there should be some sort of railing system. Pure negligence, pure disregard for safety. You expect to see this in other countries.”

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The Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency (TCIDA), which granted a tax abatement for the project, also issued a statement when contacted with the photographs.

“The TCIDA relies on State and federal agencies that are much better suited under the law to enforce safety regulations. We understand that OSHA has been on site and conducted a full review of the safety mechanisms in place for the company installing the scaffolding. There have been no violations issued and the safety plan has been deemed adequate. We are in further contact with the project development team to understand the situation and assist in any way that we are able under the Public Authorities Accountability Act which governs Industrial Development Agencies throughout the State,” responded Tompkins County Area Development Vice President Heather McDaniel. TCAD manages the IDA.

So here’s the summary, albeit not a conclusive one.

The photos are definitely alarming at first glance, and potentially incriminating. The presumption after Friday’s compliance check was that there was no violation because the project team hadn’t heard back from OSHA on Monday, and they continued with scaffolding erection as before. OSHA has now visited the site a second time. The safety issue is under investigation and there is no official comment, and may not be for months. Should additional information become available, The Ithaca Voice will issue an update.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.