An air conditioner that weighed more than 20,000 pounds broke free from a Crane and fell 30 stories to the unforgiving pavement on Madison Avenue in Manhattan last weekend. It could have been a tragedy of epic proportions. Thankfully, it wasn’t. While several people were hurt, nobody was killed or appears to have been seriously injured. Still, this frightening episode illuminates what has been an unusually dangerous year in the construction industry surrounding New York City.
Eight people have already been killed in construction-related accidents this year, a period of just 5 months. This statistic matches the number of construction fatalities that occurred in all of 2014. This year marks the most dangerous year in construction since the last construction explosion in New York City in 2008. In that year, 19 people were killed in construction accidents. It’s not just fatal accidents that have increased this year. Overall, the number of construction accidents is up almost 25% from the most recent calculations done in 2014.
Is this because workers are less safe? The point is debatable. Most industry experts suggest that the statistics are only revealing of a massive increase in construction work. The theory goes: The more construction, the more danger. The construction boom in New York does not appear to be slowing down any time soon. Mayor Bill De Blasio is championing an increase in construction to accommodate his affordable housing goals. So the industry will apparently have to deal with a continued surge in available construction work. Consequently, fewer workers will be asked to do more work or lesser-experienced workers who don’t have the benefit of time and training will be leaned on to do things that they may be unaccustomed to.
The workers are not complaining. They appreciate that an increased amount of construction will lead to an increase in their take-home pay. The trick is, how do you effectively balance the massive increase in construction while also continuing to keep workers safe?
In a city that is still struggling from a fiscal standpoint, it is revealing that the mayor has proposed an almost 30% increase to the Buildings Department budget. No city agency has a comparable increase. The budget, if approved, will allow the agency to increase the number of people they employ to inspect construction sites and enforce safety rules and regulations. Currently, the agency has an underwhelming number of agents capable of handling this task. This makes enforcement and accident prevention almost impossible to achieve. We are largely relying on the sound judgment and experience of people in the field to keep workers safe. But what happens when the people making the decisions are not the most experienced and well trained workers?
Whenever construction accidents are on the rise there is usually dialog coming from the building trades unions. The reason for that is historically union jobs have been much safer than nonunion jobs. The trade unions contend that property owners and developers employ cheaper, non-union labor to handle major construction jobs. They do this to reduce costs on the job and increase their profit margin. This is not an uncommon practice and the unions claim it is one of the major reasons that construction accidents continue to soar this year. Inexperienced workers who aren’t well trained tend to lead to a greater frequency of accidents. Union workers have a track record of safety. Their formula is relatively simple: They employ more experienced workers who have the benefit of extensive training. They have site safety experts patrolling the work area to make sure that they are complying with federal and local laws and regulations. Their arguments are very well-grounded and impossible to dispute. But, that isn’t going to prevent non-union labor from getting a portion of the work. So the challenge is to find a system that will continue to keep all workers as safe as possible.
Whatever the background, training and experience of the workers who continue to help shape how our skyline looks, we need to make worker safety a priority moving forward. It is a matter of life and death. People who show up and put in a hard day’s work should not be placed in precarious situations where they may not make it home that night to see their family. This is a job for politicians, activists, union leaders and every one of us who cares about giving the working woman and man an opportunity to earn an honest living. Part of that job involves fighting for the protection of New York’s Worker Safety Laws. The Scaffold Safety Law is a law that protects workers who aren’t given a safe place to do their job. It holds property owners, general contractors and developers responsible when someone is hurt on a construction site because they didn’t provide a safe place to work or safe equipment to use. Strengthening and maintaining this law is one way that New Yorkers can help keep Worker Safety a priority.
Block O’Toole & Murphy is a law firm that prides itself on fighting for the rights of construction workers. We have helped injured workers and their families for more than two decades. Our results, both inside and outside the courtroom, including more than $850 million in verdicts and settlements, demonstrate our commitment to helping all construction workers. You may learn more about the firm at www.blockotoole.com.