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Rising Death Toll as NYC Construction Booms

Gurmeet Singh came to the United States on a tourist visa 13 years ago. He was a veteran of the Indian Army, and though he was already well into his 40s, he was looking for a fresh start in a new city.

Gurmeet settled in New York and began a career in construction. Each month he sent part of his paycheck back to his family in India. Many of his jobs came from Adalat Khan, a subcontractor for a Queens construction company. According to Gurmeet’s children, the two men developed a friendship over the years.

In the spring of last year, Gurmeet began planning his first trip back to India in over a decade. Adalat offered him a job building the Dream Hotel on West 55th Street, and since it would be Gurmeet’s last job before his return trip, Adalat included an airline ticket to India in his pay.

It was on this job that Gurmeet fell 8 stories to his death.

An investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found that Adalat had cut corners in order to get the job done faster. His crew had not installed necessary guardrails, and the scaffolding had been “altered by untrained employees that were not supervised by a competent person.” Gurmeet’s body was found without a harness attached. As a result, Adalat’s company, Pak National Gen. Corporation, was fined $42,000 for safety violations.

When questioned by investigators, Adalat denied his friendship with Gurmeet, claiming “I do not know the name of the deceased.”

Stories like Gurmeet’s have become increasingly common in the last two years as new construction surges across the city.

324 construction workers were injured or killed in the last fiscal year, a 53% increase since the previous year. In contrast, permits for new building projects only increased 11% in the last year.

A New York Times investigation into New York construction injuries found that many of the victims were not wearing helmets and harness, and the job sites often lacked adequate supervision. In many instances, the contractors had incurred fines for previous safety violations that they had not paid.

Many of the workers hired on small, nonunion projects are undocumented immigrants. These workers are paid under the table, and are too afraid of their employers to report unsafe working conditions. As a result, these workers are much more prone to workplace injuries.

The city has long struggled to regulate worker safety at construction sites. Complaints filed with the Buildings Department regarding worker safety in the last two years number over 2000, yet they only make up 6% of all complaints.

On many construction projects, workers are told not to call the police in the event of an emergency. One of the 40 complaints filed against the luxury building construction at 252 East 7th Street includes the description, “Two people were injured. They were advised NOT to call E.M.S.”

In spite of the ongoing building boom, OSHA currently employs less safety inspectors than at any other point in the last 5 years. The Building Department’s construction worker photo ID requirement is frequently evaded. Over 20 workers have been arrested since January for using fraudulent IDs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has taken some steps towards improving working conditions. He recently announced plans to hire 100 new building inspectors, and his administration has released a new construction code of conduct.

These announcements are a start, but there is still much more the city can do to ensure worker safety. Undocumented immigrants across the city risk their lives everyday for a paycheck, while contractors are given little incentive to clean up their act.

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

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