New York City’s Department of Buildings released a scathing report that illustrated a sharp increase in accidents and deaths at construction sites in New York City over the past 12 months. The report cites statistics that point to a massive 34% increase in construction injuries over the last fiscal year. The report was released as the Investigative Agency is looking into another construction related death that took place this week in Manhattan. Fatalities at construction sites have nearly doubled in the past year and far surpassed totals in any recent year.
Recently, in this space, we at Block O’Toole & Murphy have been discussing worker safety and the increase in construction accidents in great detail. The lackadaisical approach to worker safety at construction sites seems to be causing a stir. An investigative piece by POLITICO NEW YORK, linked below, is making the rounds on the Internet and social media. The article pounds the City’s inability to curtail the frequency of serious accidents. It also is critical of their efforts at preventing companies with a poor record for safety from continuing to get work permits approved. The Department of Buildings responded in an email that they are employing “advanced data analysis to aggressively pursue and hold construction professionals accountable for insuring they are safeguarding their worksites.” They continue by blaming site managers for failing to comply with safety regulations and claim that they will pursue disciplinary actions and attempts to cooperate with law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies.
This report comes on the heels of a fatal accident that took place in the Hells Kitchen section of Manhattan. An construction worker, in that fatal accident, plummeted 30 to 40 feet down an elevator shaft to his death at a location where a posh Hotel is being constructed. The worker did not have a harness and was being required to work on top of unsecured wooden planks covering the elevator shaft. His death was both senseless and disgraceful. There have been 2 safety violations issued already to a general contractor and subcontractor working at the site.
The seeming disregard for safety comes at a rather inopportune time for New York City and its workers. Why? There is a current increase in construction activity like we have never seen before. The amount of construction in all five boroughs eclipses any other time in New York City history. Still, questions remain whether the increase in construction activity warrants the increase in construction accidents. Politicians are starting to appreciate how critical this issue is. City Councilman Jumanne Williams is quoted on a few occasions in the piece. He offers that there may be “an expectation that there might be an increase [in construction injuries] with the increase of construction. I don’t know that we necessarily accept that philosophy, and we shouldn’t.” Williams’ voice is a vital one in this ongoing discussion. After all, he chairs the Housing and Buildings committee for the City Council. Williams vented more, “what’s frustrating to me is that some of the accident are similar, and we should be learning from the mistakes and insuring that companies that do business with New York City are putting safety first.” Instead, Williams adds that he believes “people are trying to cut corners.”
Currently the resources in staffing for all agencies tied to preventing and investigating construction accidents are very limited. The limitations dictate that the agencies are largely reactive rather than proactive. Consequently, they are showing up to investigate why a fatal accident took place rather than arriving and preventing the accident by holding people accountable for their failure to provide a safe place for people to work. A greater emphasis placed on worker safety by the general public and influential politicians should allow for increased financing to tackle this very real problem. Williams goes on in the article, evincing that he appreciates the dilemma, “It seems to me that we don’t have the tools necessary to hold these companies feet to the fire. We have to get the tools so that we can demand that safety come first – not money.”
The article segues into whether non-union developers are more likely to place profits over people. The data suggests that they do and the President of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, Gary LaBarbera, persuasively presses that issue. The discrepancy in safety practices, if accurate, only further illuminates the need to be proactive in fortifying worker safety laws in New York and increasing the attention and resources that we devote to keeping workers safe.
The increase in construction injuries is a warning sign that we need a sharper focus on worker safety. It remains to be seen how the local and state politicians as well as the general public react to this grim report. Let’s hope that we learn from past mistakes.
Block O’Toole & Murphy is a team of lawyers that prides itself on fighting for injured construction workers and their families. You may learn more about the firm by reviewing their website at www.blockotoole.com. You may also contact them at any time at 212-736-5300.