WORKERS have called the exposed stairwell of Carpenter Center "a mother's nightmare" for years now, but never with the conviction they used this week. What in the past had seemed merely a risky spot for small children suddenly showed itself for it was--a dangerous safety hazard in gross violation of existing building codes. The nearly three-foot gaps in the railing left plenty of room for a three-year-old to tumble about 12 feet to a concrete floor; he was treated for wrist and head wounds and was released the same day. The most appalling part of the accident was that it could have been prevented--and if it weren't for Harvard's bureaucracy, it would have been.
As Carpenter staff members' macabre description of the ledge would indicate, the danger was not unknown. In 1985, a state inspector, visiting Carpenter on entirely different business, noticed the railing and wrote to city officials and Harvard administrators calling it "a gross violation of existing codes."
Yet the government letter, which was not an official citation, never even penetrated the inner circles of University decision-makers. The stairwell had even been covered with a fence, which was taken down before the accident. Top maintence officials said they never knew of the temporary fence, the letter or the risk.
Employees said concern for aesthetics may have delayed attention to the safety hazard. The spiral-looking building is the only structure in North America designed by the internationally-known architect, Le Corbusier.
BUT from a wide range of interviews it appears that the accident was not caused by heartless officials putting an international reputation ahead of the safety of young children. Rather the incident seems indicative of the University's Kafkaesque bureaucracy.
Look at the many warnings there were about the Carpenter Center hazard. State officials writing to city officials, workers talking among themselves, state officials writing to Harvard officials, maintenance men making repairs temporarily. The heart of the problem, according to interviews with administrators and city inspectors, is the complex licensing system of campus buildings--which holds no one office or agency accountable for the safety of buildings.
Harvard is a large campus, and city officials have concluded that they lack enough inspectors for all campus buildings. So they have forged an "informal" relationship: all but the most basic fire safety checks are performed by the University's own inspectors. Yet the Carpenter Center episode illustrates that the task may be too difficult for Harvard to handle.
IN the Carpenter center case, two Harvard officials were sent copies of the 1985 safety complaint--one an administrator of the building, another a maintenance official. The Carpenter administrator said she forwarded the letter to Facilities Maintenance, while the Facilities Maintenance official, who must have been sent two letters on the subject, said, "I really don't recall any of the details."
While Harvard's handling of the accident itself has been admirable, the whole episode is troubling. How can the University claim to maintain basic safety, when it fails to act on hazards it is consistantly warned about? Is there any real attempt to find new safety problems in buildings?
With Harvard's decentralized decision-making and the city's bureaucracy, there is no reason to feel that anything more than fire escape routes are well-checked. Considering the friendly terms the University has been given, we should expect a much more responsive investigation service and an increase in inspection staff.
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