Eighteen construction workers were killed at New York City job sites in the last year—a significant jump from the seven construction deaths two years ago, according to the US Occupational Safety & Health Administration. As construction continues to boom in New York, we are seeing a pattern of dangerous conditions and preventable accidents.
One possible explanation for this trend is a decline in the number of site-safety inspectors. Since 2011, the number of building permits has increased by 18%, while the available inspectors have fallen by 6%.
Site-safety inspectors are required to police all exterior construction work on new buildings and on older buildings fifteen stories and higher. Up until this year, inspectors were required to be present on construction sites full-time. Beginning in January, however, the city Buildings Department dropped their minimum requirement to two hours per job site in order to accommodate the greater amount of construction.
In spite of the 50% increase in construction deaths since last year, department spokesman Alexander Schnell insisted that this regulation change has not compromised safety. “This went into effect at the beginning of this calendar year, and we have had no issues.”
With site-safety inspectors becoming increasingly scarce, the industry has grown prone to corruption and fraud.
Last July, criminal charges were filed against two major companies that hired out safety inspectors to construction sites. Avanti Building Consultants and NYCB Engineering Group allegedly hired inexperienced “interns” off of Craigslist to shadow real safety inspectors. After a brief training period, the companies then sent off their interns to pose as certified professional inspectors at construction sites. According to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, the scheme affected as many as forty-three construction sites.
Earlier this year, an investigation into the construction industry found 26 independent corruption schemes spanning across two city building agencies and 156 construction sites. The investigation led to the arrest of fifty building inspectors, property managers and construction workers, all of whom were charged with felonies.
Among the culprits, Brooklyn Buildings Department chief of development Gordon Holder and his wife Janelle Daly allegedly accepted $200,000 in bribes along with two cars and a Royal Caribbean cruise package in exchange for expediting certain construction jobs. Investigators say various inspectors at the Housing Preservation & Development Agency took bribes for erasing records of safety violations and producing fraudulent vacate orders to allow landlords to evict tenants that paid lower rent.
Presently, New York construction workers and their families are protected by a century-old law, Labor Law section 240, known commonly as the Scaffold Law. The Scaffold Law ensures worker safety by holding property owners and general contractors responsible for injuries suffered by workers in falls. This law is now under attack by lobbyists representing property owners, contractors and insurers claiming that it raises insurance premiums and discourages new construction.
Leaving aside the fact that New York is experiencing a major upsurge in new construction, and that this growth is making property owners, contractors and insurers rich, to repeal the Scaffold Law would be to strip away the only law protecting the workers who are most at risk.
Allen, Jonathan, “NYC building inspectors charged with ignoring safety for bribes,” Reuters, 10 February 2015.
Badia, Erik, Edgar Sandoval and Greg B. Smith, “NYC building inspectors, contractors surrender to authorities over $450K bribery scheme,” NY Daily News, 11 February 2015.
McKinley Jr., James C, “2 Companies Accused of Faking Safety Checks at Building Sites,” The New York Times, 2 July 2014.
Semple, Kirk, “Contractors and Workers at Odds Over Scaffold Law,” The New York Times, 17 December 2013.
Smith, Greg B., “As NYC’s building boom takes off, number of site-safety inspectors drop – and construction fatalities spike,” NY Daily News, 18 October 2015.