blog post photo
Photo: OSHA

I'll bet that construction executives will be paying close attention to James F. Lomma, the 64-year-old owner of Brooklyn-based New York Crane & Equipment Corp.

Charged with manslaughter, assault, criminally-negligent homicide and reckless endangerment, Lomma, his companies and an associate have pleaded not guilty in connection with a May 2008 crane accident that killed two construction workers.

This case could have serious repercussions in the construction industry, particularly for high-level executives who traditionally stay out of the day-to-day details of running a construction site.

When it comes to cranes, though, the devil is in the details. As I have reported for nearly two years, the Lomma story centers around a China-supplied turntable (seen above), whose weld failed catastrophically. Also in question is if New York Crane took the proper standards of care in maintaining the machine.

A lawyer suing Lomma on behalf of Donald Leo, the 30-year-old crane operator who died in the failure, is arguing that New York Crane simply cut too many corners. "The Leo family has paid the ultimate price for Jimmy Lomma's greed," says Bernadette Panzella, who represents Leo's estate.

Lomma's side paints a portrait of public vengeance.
"Jimmy Lomma and New York Crane bought a bearing from what they believed what a reputable company in China," says Paul Shechtman, an attorney representing Lomma's firms. "Among the people who inspected it was the New York City Dept. of Buildings itself, and this is a case that should never have been brought criminally."

A likely outcome is that more cities, like New York, will ban older cranes that are no longer supported by a manufacturer. Because the Kodiak-brand crane was no longer in production, Lomma was forced to go to deep into the aftermarket to replace its turntable. Not surprisingly, China Inc. came up with the lowest bid.

With China's reputation for many things of questionable content (such as tires, drywall and paint), some find it outrageous that Lomma would shop there for parts. But other folks who work in the crane field say it is not as big of a concern as it may seem.

"This is a very tragic situation," says Frank Bardonaro, president and CEO of Trevose, Pa.-based AmQuip Crane Rental LLC, another large crane owner. However, he adds, "it is not uncommon to have a 2009 or 2010 model machine that has new parts being sent in from Europe, China or Japan." Lomma and other U.S. crane owners have maintained that the industry works safely around these machines.

There's another issue in play that has nothing to do with maintenance and everything to do with management: The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration did not cite Lomma or his affiliates for any violation of the federal labor code. Really?

According to government records, OSHA fined the general contractor, Sorbara Construction Corp., for such violations as not grounding electrical circuits and failing to provide workers with fall protection. But no fines were ever brought against Lomma, although OSHA in its investigation did kick around the idea of a willful violation related to the turntable repair.

And yet he faces criminal prosecution?
This should worry construction executives.

"The real wake-up call to [business] owners is that it's not business as usual," says one industry insider, who asked not to be identified. "They have to take ownership of safety and the operations of their equipment."