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Market Street collapse hearing takes a dramatic turn

8/2/2013 | Construction Blog, Real Estate Blog

Reading from a prepared statement, a witness at a Philadelphia City Council committee hearing this week raked the Department of Licenses & Inspections over the coals. The Market Street building collapse in June that resulted in six deaths is just one of a decades-long string of failures, he said, that stem from the department’s emphasis on politics and economic development over public safety.

The speaker, Bennett Levin, was the Licensing & Inspections commissioner from 1992 to 1995. His testimony was part of the council’s investigation of construction and demolition practices that may have contributed to the fatal Market Street collapse.

Levin was not the only witness this week, but his statement was the only one to elicit a strongly-worded response from Mayor Michael Nutter. The mayor suggested that Levin was out of touch with the way the department is run now. Nutter stated that the department has kept its mission of public safety clearly in sight as it has worked to improve processes, to update technology and to hire and retain qualified staff.

Levin’s remarks did not target everyone on staff, but he was especially critical of the city’s standards for inspectors. Inspectors, he said, should be masters of their trades. A plumbing inspector should have enough hands-on experience to diagnose a problem and to be secure in that diagnosis.

The current certification process does not require field experience; you pass a test, Levin continued, and you’re an inspector. On site, inspectors deal with professionals who likely know more than they do about how things really work; the result is that inspectors are ineffective, they become “insecure and defensive.” The department believes inspectors should be cross-trained, Levin said, and that has turned out to be a disservice to the inspectors and the public.

Another witness may have raised more eyebrows than Levin. An attorney for some of the victims of the Market Street accident told the committee that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires an engineering survey prior to demolition. He said he has found no record of such a survey at the Market Street site.

While the city council holds hearings, the district attorney’s office is preparing its criminal case against the heavy-equipment operator authorities say was responsible for the Market Street collapse. The operator has been charged with manslaughter.

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, “Stinging criticism at L&I hearing on collapse,” Bob Warner, Aug. 2, 2013