2015 and 2016 were two of the most devastating years in history for the New York City construction industry. 31 men and women died on the job, meaning that on average, one worker did not come home from a construction site about every three weeks.
The last death of 2016 occurred on December 23rd, when a worker, whose safety belt was not attached to any cable, fell down an elevator shaft. Just weeks prior, another worker, also not wearing a connected safety belt, fell to his death in Brooklyn at the Old Domino Sugar Factory. These two fatalities, heartbreaking in themselves, portray a larger problem: 29 of the 31 deaths happened at non-union sites. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), almost all of the deaths were preventable.
What has led to these fatalities? Following the recession, New York experienced a building boom, with an 18 percent uptick in building permits granted. At the same time, the City decreased construction oversight. The number of safety inspections fell each year, from 2,722 in 2011 to 1,966 in 2015, and the number of OSHA inspectors dropped by more than 13 percent.
This new deregulated environment had vastly different effects on union and nonunion companies.
Union workers undergo training and apprentice programs, making them prepared for their work environment. Every union worksite has a shop steward who fields concerns and questions from the workers about safety issues and advocates for them if need be. If a site is dangerous, the workers can refuse to put themselves in jeopardy and know they will be protected.
On the contrary, nonunion workers often do not have the prerequisite training, have little bargaining power if the conditions are unsafe, and do not have a designated advocate. When government oversight decreases, these workers are left vulnerable, dependent on the goodwill of their employers. Too often, their employers value profits over safety. 90 percent of the constructions companies listed in OSHA’s “Severe Violator Enforcement Program,” a list of employers who have shown a repeat “indifference to their occupational safety and health obligations through willful, repeat or failure-to-abate violations,” are nonunion.
To make matters worse, many of the nonunion workers face another disadvantage in that they are foreign-born and undocumented. Afraid to speak up and often not aware of their legal rights, these workers are more susceptible to abuse and exploitation. Latinos, in particular, are disproportionately endangered on construction sites. Though they make up only 30 percent of the construction workforce, they accounted for 57 percent of those who died due to falls, the most common construction death.
Tragically, most of these deaths were preventable. Safety violations were found at 90 percent of the fatality sites, suggesting that with greater oversight, at least some of those who died could still be home with their families today.
Fortunately, there is some cause to be optimistic. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito introduced the Construction Safety Act, a comprehensive package of safety legislation, to the floor in January. Criminal convictions of willfully negligent construction managers are being upheld in court. And undocumented immigrants who are injured in dangerous work environments maintain the right to sue their employer without facing immigration consequences.
Still, with 31 dead this year, much more needs to be done to address this crisis. As Speaker Mark-Viverito said, “All the lives we have lost is a huge failure on our part, so we have to look at what we can do as a city to improve conditions and make sure people are getting training, and we can have sites that are secure where people can work without risking their lives.”
Bravo, Dominique “2 Years, 31 Dead Construction Workers. New York Can Do Better.” The New York Times. 16 January 2017.
“Deadly Skyline: An Annual Report on Construction Fatalities in New York State.” New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. 2017 January.
Goldenberg, Sally “Death of construction worker at Domino Sugar site reignites broader industry dispute.” Politico. 9 December 2016.
Smith, Greg “NYC construction deaths and injuries rise as inspections decline.” New York Daily News. 18 January 2017.
Pazmino, Gloria “Mark-Viverito makes show of support for construction safety legislation.” Politico. 15 December 2016.