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Just How Dangerous Is New York City Construction Work?

17 New York City construction workers died last year in work-related incidents. That is, if you ask the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. According to the Department of Buildings, only 12 construction workers lost their lives on the job.

The discrepancy between these two numbers stems from conflicting definitions of a construction-related death, and it is indicative of the absence of clear, consistent data in an industry that has seen both tremendous growth and a surge in preventable deaths over the last 5 years.

The majority of the construction worker fatalities in the last year occurred on non-union sites—the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health identified 15 out of 17 deaths as non-union. However, there is disagreement as to how much of the industry is made up of non-union workers.

BuildingNYC, an association that support non-union construction companies, claims that only about 25% of New York construction workers belong to a union. However, a 2014 survey by Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs found the opposite, that in fact “union workers have a majority of the market share in the New York City construction industry.”

If the truth lies closer to Columbia University’s finding, then the enormous discrepancy between non-union and union worker deaths presents an alarming view of non-union construction company safety standards.

In June of this year, Harco Construction LLC was convicted of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment after a 13-foot trench on one of the company’s work sites collapsed, killing undocumented worker Carlos Moncayo. The trench was shored up improperly, according to city and federal regulations, and Harco had received previous warnings from safety inspectors.

Harco’s conviction marks a step forward in curbing dangerous corner-cutting behavior by non-union construction companies.

“Today’s guilty verdict should signal to the construction industry that managing a project from afar does not insulate a corporation or general contractor from criminal liability,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. in a statement. “Construction companies are responsible for the safety of the individuals that work on their projects, regardless of union or immigration status.”

An analysis by the New York Times found that immigrant workers, particularly undocumented immigrants, are at highest risk.

Union communications director Richard Weiss argues that “For a lot of these non-union shops, the key is to get workers that are sufficiently undocumented so that they can pressure those workers to not report when they are hurt on the job, or even lie about it as the company directs them if they have to get to the hospital.”

Is it possible to identify risk-taking construction companies before a tragedy occurs?

According to Mark Peters, Department of Investigation commissioner, there is often a connection between contractors who rip off workers with wages and those that cut safety corner. “If you are willing to steal wages from your workers then it’s pretty likely you’ll have no trouble not spending the money on safety equipment or taking the additional time to do a job safely,” said Peters.

The City of New York has allocated $120 million for new technology to identify dangerous contractors and to hire 100 new safety inspectors. We hope that these measures can help curb the rising death toll. In the meantime, holding construction companies like Harco responsible for their negligence will force other bad actors in the industry to improve their safety standards, or pay the price.

Sources: Chen, David W., “Safety Lapses and Deaths Amid a Building Boom in New York,” The New York Times, 26 November 2015.

Hennelly, Bob, “Unions, Construction Companies Are Playing The Blame Game Over Worker Deaths In NYC,” City & State New York, 29 August 2016.

Ramey, Corinne, “Manhattan Prosecutors Go After Builders on Construction-Site Safety,” The Wall Street Journal, 26 August 2016.

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