Monday, May 17, 2004

New York Upgrades Fire & Building Codes

The New York Times has a major article on New York City's plan to upgrade its fire and building codes. The fire code has not had a major revision since it was issued in 1918 in the wake of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaste fire.

The revision of the codes come out of the events of 9/11 and a report by the US Chemical Safety Board on the explosion at Kaltech Industries in 2002. That explosion was caused by the improper mixing of hazardous wastes. The CSB found that the city did not incorporate recent developments in hazardous materials safety, such as chemical identification, labeling, worker training, and separation of incompatible materials.

The process promises to be interesting:
Already, powerful groups representing both camps - developers and city officials who want to lower building costs and those who say there is no better time to tighten safety measures - are lobbying to ensure that their views prevail. And the process has become politicized in even more complex ways because of all the other interests represented on the 13 committees: those of unions, architects, environmentalists, disabled people and advocates for the construction of low- and moderate-income housing.
There are also a few occupational safety concerns:
The debate over safety extends even to matters like the array of new construction materials, including plastic pipe, that the national codes allow. Just as garbage disposals were banned in New York City until 1997 for environmental reasons, plastic pipe, used nationwide for 30 years or so, has been forbidden in New York buildings taller than three stories.

Some firefighters point out that the pipe gives off toxic fumes when it burns, while the local plumbers' union says that glues used to assemble it might pose a health hazard. But Julius A. Ballanco, an engineer and code consultant, countered at one Buildings Department hearing that the pipe was safe and that its opponents' underlying worry was that "plastic pipe typically takes less labor to install and is often less costly."

Another proposed code change would force developers to hire an additional structural engineering firm to provide a second opinion for buildings with particularly innovative designs. If the International Fire Code is adopted in its entirety, the storage and handling of chemicals will be far more restricted.