The Question That Needs To Be Answered About the Philadelphia Building Collapse

The technical engineering cause of the collapse of 2136 Market Street should not be too difficult to decipher.  2136 Market was a much taller building constructed with reinforced masonry (literally bricks and sticks).  Moreover, the building adjacent to 2136 Market to the East had already been demolished.  It is certainly not the first time an older building constructed in the style of 2136 Market collapsed during demolition.

What needs to be answered is what could the City of Philadelphia done to prevent this tragedy?

The initial focus has been on the responsibility of the contractor performing the demolition.  ENR reports that the owner of the firm performing the work, Griffin T. Campbell, has a checkered criminal past.  I am not sure how the owner’s criminal history makes it an more likely that his employees failed to follow sound construction and engineering techniques in bringing down 2136 Market.

But, shouldn’t the City of Philadelphia’s Department of License & Inspections (“L&I”) bear some of the blame?   According to the ENR story, L&I officials have disclaimed any responsibility for monitoring the demolition of 2136 Market Street and, instead, have pointed the finger at OSHA.  While it is true that OSHA has responsibility to monitor construction practices that place workers in danger, its oversight responsibility for construction practices that may cause a building to collapse on an adjacent building and its ability to that stop work is questionable.  OSHA’s primary goal is to ensure building practices do not pose an unnecessary risk to construction workers, not whether construction is being performed according to industry standards.  OSHA regulations are not building codes and unsafe building practices do not necessarily equate to improper building techniques.  For example, roofers working without fail protection are engaging in an unsafe building practice and committing an OSHA violation.  However, that does not mean that the roof that they are installing is being installed improperly or that the roof is likely to fail in the future.  Certainly, there will be overlap between unsafe and improper practices especially in an area like demolition.

While OSHA’s ability to stop work for improper building practices is questionable, L&I’s ability to stop work that may cause a building to collapse is not.  L&I’s power to stop work on a building that is in “imminent danger of collapse” is squarely within its power under the Philadelphia Building Code and L&I regularly slaps its blaze orange imminent danger notices on structures throughout the City, ordering workers to immediately cease work on a site when its does (often under the threat of arrest), and forcing adjacent buildings to evacuate.

Sovereign immunity prevents L&I from being help culpable for any failure on its part.  However, that should not stop us from investigating whether L&I’s could have prevented this tragedy and demanding changes be made to L&I’s practices so this does not happen again.

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