Please Don't Shed On My Head
June 28, 2022 1:13 PM   Subscribe

How often do people in cities like New York that have sidewalks alongside densely packed tall buildings get hit with various types of falling debris?

Call me neurotic but when I'm walking on a city street in Manhattan I find myself wondering how often people get hit by something falling down from the side or top of buildings or from a window ledge. I wonder about that especially in cities that have a lot of older structures.

I presume the chance of any given individual encountering such a situation is extremely rare, but I haven't read anything on the topic except for one or two incidents in the news, so I was wondering if it's indeed super uncommon, and if so, is it because buildings are subject to very strict maintenance and inspection requirements and severe non-compliance penalties, or because stuff falls more often than we think or know but doesn't usually actually hit someone.
posted by Dansaman to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The building management puts up sidewalk sheds during outdoor construction maintenance
posted by brujita at 1:31 PM on June 28

Last time I was in Chicago, someone - (a tour guide?) - said that ice sliding off slanted skyscraper roofs was a real thing and a real danger.

That's all I got. I worry about it (people pitching crap out of windows) all the time when I'm walking down the street in places like that!
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:31 PM on June 28 [2 favorites]

Snow and ice are a routine hazard on certain winter days. I haven't heard of any deaths resulting, but I sure wouldn't want to be in the way of a chunk of ice falling from the 20th floor.

There's an extensive facade law that explains why you see so many existing buildings covered in scaffolding for so long. It seems to hold back the tide, though you still get the occasional incredibly sad story.
posted by praemunire at 1:32 PM on June 28 [2 favorites]

(In one of my last high-rise jobs, I used to actually be able to see snow and ice go falling past my window at intervals after storms. Unsettling.)
posted by praemunire at 1:33 PM on June 28 [1 favorite]

Chicago; all the goddamned time. I am a detritus magnet. It's never been anything big thank goodness (a relatively small and non lethal chunk of winter ice was the worst thing), but little nasty things--enough to take it personally.

Most commonly it's the various juices of the city. Window washing suds. Window AC condensate. Train juice. Pigeon crap. Non-pigeon based liquid of no discernable source. Etc.
posted by phunniemee at 1:33 PM on June 28 [5 favorites]

This NYT article describes an incident where a 2 year old child was killed by falling facade and talks about about the scaffolding regulations that were implemented by Koch in 1979 after a similar incident. Between 2009 and 2014, nine people were killed by falling debris. Surprisingly frequent.
posted by TurnKey at 1:34 PM on June 28 [3 favorites]

posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 1:37 PM on June 28 [19 favorites]

Most common substance falling on me, summertime in mid-town. At least, I hope it's AC juice. I'm sure you can find boys of a certain age in NYC who've urinated out of high-rise windows.
posted by Rash at 1:40 PM on June 28

"Urban moisture," one of the few things that makes me want to take up a rural lifestyle.
posted by praemunire at 1:42 PM on June 28 [3 favorites]

There’s a fairly stringent local law — Local Law 11 — in NYC enforcing facade inspections and repairs, exactly so that doesn’t happen.
posted by LizardBreath at 1:45 PM on June 28 [3 favorites]

In Philadelphia, I got dripped on quite frequently by window/wall AC units when walking below. It was gross.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 1:46 PM on June 28

Between 2009 and 2014, nine people were killed by falling debris. Surprisingly frequent.

Over 8 million people live in this city. Even one death from falling debris is bad, but I wouldn't call these numbers "surprisingly frequent". Just by way of comparison, around 175 pedestrians were killed by cars in NYC in 2013 alone.

There’s a fairly stringent local law — Local Law 11 — in NYC enforcing facade inspections and repairs, exactly so that doesn’t happen.

Yes. Also, any time there are any facade or roof repairs going on, or even planned, buildings are required to put up sturdy scaffolding over the sidewalk. Sometimes these scaffolds stay in place for years until the work is done.

Agreeing with those who say that generally, the worst hazard is gross water dripping from window A/Cs.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 1:52 PM on June 28 [9 favorites]

I used to do labouring, rigging, and dogman (cranemans' guide and dogsbody on the ground). A lot of my time was installing, cleaning, repairing and uninstalling catchscreens (ply and scaffold trays basically) to catch the constant rain of pebbles, conctete spatter, nails and tools.

I have seen a scaffold plank fall 30 floors and impale a car to the road, just like a pinned beetle in a museum. My boss had a plank come thru his offce roof, and thru his desk, the person on t'other side of desk was shocked to say the least. Seen railway sleepers float off the roof in a hurricane. And other things not for here.
posted by unearthed at 2:17 PM on June 28 [14 favorites]

People have already explained why the risk is low, but if you have HBO, you may enjoy the episode about scaffolding in NYC from How To with John Wilson.
posted by coffeecat at 2:17 PM on June 28 [13 favorites]

Edinburgh had 179 reports of falling masonry in 2018 - equivalent to one almost every other day. So far nothing has been done about it.
There used to be a council department responsible for inspections and repairs, but it was completely closed down in 2013 due to an extensive fraud.
posted by Lanark at 2:27 PM on June 28 [4 favorites]

As I understand it there's a lot of very old, mouldering terracotta adorning many New York multistory buildings (which may well explain the law).
posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 3:37 PM on June 28

You may also be interested in the urban hazard of exploding manholes, which are surprisingly frequent. Why explosions happen in manholes.
posted by momus_window at 3:38 PM on June 28

Stuff I have seen or heard about falling from buildings in Austria (mostly Vienna):
  1. A tube tv hit the sidewalk ~10 feet behind my brother as he walked along. Someone had dropped it out of a window on the 3rd or 4th floor.
  2. Some kids tried to hit me with a tennis ball dropped from the 6th floor.
  3. Some kids tried to hit passers-by with condoms filled with soapy water thrown from the 4th floor.
  4. A huge piece of ice and hard pack snow (3’ x 3’ x 1’) landed ~10 feet from where I was standing. It had slid off the roof of a 5-story building. Sounded like a bomb going off when it hit the ground.
  5. I was at a party once when some dimwits started throwing random stuff out of a 4th-floor window. It began with cushions from a couch and escalated to stuff that could have really injured someone. I tried to get them to stop. The police showed up a little later and fined the residents of the apartment.
  6. Some big chunks of masonry fell from the Stefansdom ~10 years ago. Fortunately no one was hurt.
Falling ice is a big deal here. I don’t have any statistics, but you do read about people being injured or killed by it every winter.
posted by syzygy at 3:51 PM on June 28 [2 favorites]

There's a book about it (and a bunch of other interesting stuff) The City of Falling Angels
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 5:43 PM on June 28 [1 favorite]

In my firm’s old offices on the 32nd floor of a fairly well known building near Grand Central, the whole pane of glass in my friend’s office dropped off the side of the building. No one was hurt, miraculously. But he wasn’t allowed to go back in there until they had installed a new window.
posted by slkinsey at 7:37 PM on June 28

I have lived in New York City and walked around in it at great length for over 30 years now. I have only had something fall from a roof and land near me ONCE in that ENTIRE 30 YEARS. (It was a piece of an ornamental roof tile that landed about 10-20 feet in front of me as I was walking down a street.)

It happens once in a blue moon, but this is a big city and there are a lot of people in it and the odds of you being the one person that happens to be in the precise exact spot when a thing is falling (despite the copious building inspections meant to ensure it doesn't fall) are very remote.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:04 PM on June 28 [2 favorites]

Y'all, don't walk that close to buildings in the summer. There was a whole episode of Broad City about the notion of AC water dripping in someone's eye.
posted by limeonaire at 9:12 PM on June 28

Some 35 years ago on a Christmas morning we walked down to the car to go to a family visit to find a TV aerial stuck to the back of the car like a mast: the metal mounting post had cut a clean round hole straight through the trunk lid. It had probably been dislodged by the wind off a building roof overnight, and could very well have killed somebody.
posted by each day we work at 1:58 AM on June 29

Other than heavy winds + debris or irresponsible construction work/lack of maintenance, I don't think there's that much risk (there is plenty of gross, as mentioned above). And construction and maintenance should be regulated and enforced by a competent local government.

Like in Vienna, snow and ice falling off roofs is a significant risk in Finland. It rarely results in deaths, but injuries happen every winter, I think. With bigger/more professional snow removal, the sidewalk is usually fenced off for the duration, to prevent exactly this problem.
posted by snusmumrik at 2:06 AM on June 29

Expanding on Lanark's point, it's not just Edinburgh - pressure on local council budgets in the UK means that things like building inspection are not the priority that they used to be. One of the most impressive collapses I've seen was in Glasgow, but there remains the potential for whole tenements to just collapse. One of the things fuelling this is also short-term profiteering from things like Air BnB lets - if you buy a flat for a fast buck you're just not as interested in fundamental maintenance as long as the money keeps coming in. This article covers this as well as some good infographics on the issue.

Weather is also a significant factor - it's much more likely for masonry to come down in high winds (and that was certainly the case for my friend's near-miss from a falling chimney in Glasgow a few years back).

However! Even in dangerous and crumbling Edinburgh it's rare for people to be injured or killed by falling masonry - likely only two people injured in the last decade. Compare that to the 191 cyclists injured by Edinburgh's tram system in a seven year period, at a point where there was only nine miles of tramway in existence, or the 74 people killed on Edinburgh's roads in a decade. It's not an imaginary risk, but it's a much lower risk than other things that can get you in the city.
posted by Vortisaur at 5:16 AM on June 29

I got hit square in the head when I was out for a walk during a snowstorm in Portland, Oregon. By a metal fire escape stairway that had swung down in front of me.
posted by aniola at 2:59 PM on June 29

The facade of a building fell on someone in chicago this year, and in the winter lots of buildings put up “beware of falling ice” signs which I always think is weird. I mean sure, I’m sure they do it for liability reasons, but am I supposed to walk looking up? Overall I would say it’s not common, but on the east coast I’m hit with AC condensation all the time.
posted by Bunglegirl at 9:13 PM on June 29

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