Saturday, May 31, 2008

Thoughts on Safety

A friend of mine recently renovated his apartment in New York. It was a gut job; the contractor peeled off the walls and removed the floors. After peeling off the surface layer, what did my friend find underneath? He found improperly braced sub-floors; no fire-stopping had been installed between his apartment and his neighbors; support columns were not covered with flame-resistant material; and insulation wasn’t put in around the windows, to name just a few deficiencies.

In the building he lives in, substandard pipes broke in the winter and flooded his apartment. Exterior wall coatings were improperly applied and leaked. Parapets were reinforced with interior-grade (not exterior-grade) wallboard and rotted.

There is an understandable explanation for how this happened. The developer of his building, a conversion of an existing 100 year old commercial building to residential use, went bankrupt during the recession of the early 1990s. He went bankrupt midway through the work on my friend’s building. So, in the midst of a recession and an awful real estate market, an unwilling bank had to take over and finish the job. They did a lousy job.

In a capitalist marketplace, there are bad actors. This developer clearly wasn’t a top-notch developer. He lacked the financial depth and customer base to survive the recession and went bankrupt. Good riddance. Capitalism continually cleanses out bad actors. He is not building anymore or, if he is, he is operating on the fringes.

But the question remains, where were the city inspectors during all this? Many of the conditions my friend discovered during his renovation and undoubtedly many, many more that are still hidden from view, are subject to the thousands of pages of city, state, and federal rules that govern construction. Many of the conditions my friend discovered are explicitly governed by laws designed to promote fire safety. The installation of fire-retardant material that can slow a fire’s spread between apartments, and fire-proofing support columns so that they don’t buckle under the heat of fire (as the columns of the World Trade Center buckled), are clearly within an inspector’s purview. Inspectors, by law, must regularly visit construction sites. Why didn’t they catch these potentially life-endangering failures?

My friend got a clue as to the answer. City inspectors also regularly visit renovation jobsites in New York. One day, as I happened to be in his apartment, a city electrical inspector showed up. A fat, slovenly, surly, disrespectful, and barely literate thing showed up at the door. As the new floors had just been laid down and polished, the project supervisor politely asked him if he could take off his shoes. “No, I don’t do that,” the inspector said. So, he asked, could he wear “booties” that workers wear so they don’t harm finished floors? Same answer.

So, while the slob thudded his way through the apartment to the nearly finished kitchen, he said, “You need a new outlet there.” That was that. I kept my mouth shut, because I knew that if I said anything, it would only anger the inspector and that would not help my friend who was trying to get his renovation done, on time and under budget. I almost spoke up because when I looked around the kitchen, I saw, literally, dozens of outlets. Underneath the cabinets, my friend had installed strips of outlets, spaced one foot apart. There were dozens of outlets in the kitchen, way more than could be needed to meet the minimal requirements of some construction code.

But I kept my mouth shut. So did my friend, and so did the project supervisor. All of us undoubtedly had the same thought on our minds. Keep our mouths shut, put up with this jerk, and wait for him to leave so that the real work could get done.

Now, when I think about the construction cranes that have recently fallen over in New York, I think of that city inspector. A representative of an industry association on television said that the problem is not that there are an insufficient number of inspections. The problem is that the inspectors need more training. Really? Does more training address the root of the problem?

When the city inspector left my friend’s apartment, I asked the project supervisor if he would ever hire a man like that city inspector to work as an electrician. He said that, as a rule, people who become inspectors are the bottom of the barrel. They are the unemployables that private industry would never hire. They become city inspectors because that is the only place they can get work. In fact, one employee his company had to fire became an inspector. Now he must deal with that fired, disgruntled ex-employee, who has the enforcement apparatus of the state to back up his incomprehensible (and possibly vindictive) demands. (Undoubtedly, there are some good inspectors out there, but the failure to demand good work inherent in government employment ensures that they are few and far between.)

When I think about my friend’s apartment renovation, I ask myself what is it that ensures quality and competent work. Is it the presence of city inspectors, or is it something else?

Then I consider how my friend chose his contractor. He interviewed many contractors, he got recommendations and checked references and, most importantly, he visited their work. The work of the contractor he chose spoke clearly. The way the floor boards were tightly joined together, the walls were perfectly smooth and properly finished off, the way all the details matched in a beautiful whole, and the politeness and quiet competence of the men and women he spoke with gave him the answer he needed. His careful effort in selecting the best contractor for the job paid off. The result is a beautifully renovated apartment.

My friend’s rational self-interest is what led to that good outcome. Because he wanted to live in a nice apartment, he selected a good contractor. Then it was the contractor’s good judgment that created a quality product. The pre-renovation apartment he moved into, built in the early 1990s, had been inspected, like all buildings in the city. Those inspections did not prevent a bankrupt developer and a desperate bank from doing a pitiable job finishing the building.

No, it was the lack of self-interest on the part of the developer who went bankrupt that led to his actions. If he had cared for himself more, he would have run his company better, and would have survived the recession. In contrast, consider the firm that my friend chose for his renovation work. It is over 20 years old. It has survived two recessions and it has never laid off an employee. Work comes to them in good times and bad because they are good at what they do.

Capitalism is the system that rewards contractors like the one my friend chose. It is the system that unleashes self-interest to flourish. By the same token, capitalism is ruthless at weeding out the incompetent and the immoral, like the sloppy developer who went bankrupt after doing such a poor job with the building conversion in the early 1990s.

An entire army of city inspectors will never ensure safety. Yes, it will “gum up the works” by wasting the time and energies of good people like the contractors who did such a marvelous job on my friend’s apartment, but it will never ensure safety.

So what will make sure that we live in safe buildings and those disasters like the cranes toppling over in New York City are rare occurrences? More city inspectors are not the answer. There is only one answer, and no one (at least nearly no one) is talking about it.


softwareNerd said...

Great post.

Reading about how incompetent workers make their way to the role of inspector made me think of software-QA departments.

In some companies, software QA is a bureaucratic function: something that has to be "checked off the checklist", rather than a true addition of value. Such departments often attract failed programmers.

Secondly, even when one has good QA people cross-checking a product, the value-addition is small compared to what one gets from good programmers, who take pride in producing quality work.

Galileo Blogs said...

There is a crucial difference, though, between software quality-assurance people and government inspectors. It all has to do with who they work for.

Since software firms have to compete and earn their profit, they must see enough value in hiring software QA people. Those may not be top-notch people, but if they didn't help the company offer a good product, there would be no reason to employ them. Also, if they do harm, then their employer loses market share and eventually goes out of business. The market liquidates truly value-destroying jobs.

None of that happens with a city inspector. There is no profit motive to ensure that good inspectors are hired or that bad inspectors are fired. There is no profit motive to ensure that inspectors achieve the end goal, safety. Rather, inspecting becomes strictly a bureacratic function. Follow the rules. Check off the boxes on your list, and go home. If it is not on the list, no need to look for it.

That is part of the reason why government inspections do not contribute to safety at all. Only a well-functioning capitalist economy produces safety. Safety is a result of companies that want to make products that customers want. Customers don't want unsafe products. Moreover, it is expensive to run a business in a dangerous manner. You can't get insurance, employees don't want to work for you or will demand too much extra money as compensation, etc.

Abolish all government inspectors and restrictions on the insurance industry and limits on profits, and watch just how safe our products, construction sites, offices, etc., will be.