Construction throughout New York City has exploded like never before, but the price associated with the city’s expansion has been deadly. The number of fatal and serious construction accidents has increased at an alarming rate. Usually, the death of an immigrant, undocumented worker – – a Polish roofer who was working on a small project in Williamsburg or a welder from Mali who was working in the Soundview section of the Bronx – – garners very little attention, perhaps a small blurb in a local tabloid. It matters only to the victim’s loved ones.
But a recent rash of construction accidents resulting in fatalities to undocumented immigrant workers in Midtown Manhattan has illuminated a very real problem: the construction boom that we have all happily embraced has had a major negative impact on the most vulnerable members of the construction industry, the minority, undocumented worker. The worker who is least capable of standing up to the boss, a boss who is eager to expose them to an unsafe work environment, is being exposed more frequently to unimaginable perils at work. These same workers are disproportionally involved in the industry’s most catastrophic accidents.
The New York Times did an exhaustive piece on how the building boom has affected the construction industry and most prominently the undocumented, minority worker. No doubt, the article was, in part, motivated by some of the headline-grabbing accidents which occurred in the epicenter of the universe, Midtown Manhattan. The Times, however, points out that while some of the deadly construction accidents received a fair amount of press, most of the victims from the last 2 years died the way they lived, anonymously.
The article points out that many of the accidents involved smaller projects which employed nonunion workers, fueling a long-held belief by union leaders at the city should mandate that unions receive a greater percentage of the work. The article makes their case by highlighting the poor training these nonunion workers receive and the difference in their overall work experience when compared with the seasoned union worker. The author delves into some of the horrific accidents that have plagued the city over the last 2 years arguing that contractors who boast shoddy safety records and a propensity for failing to pay penalty fees bear a significant portion of the blame. Indeed, 5 of the last 7 construction fatalities have involved companies with poor track records for safety.
Some of the statistics utilized in the article are alarming. For instance, did you know that construction accidents are up 53% over the last year? If that isn’t staggering enough, how about a jump of more than 250% from 2011. People argue that the reasons for this are primarily the increase in construction projects. The numbers tell a very different story. Construction injuries have increased 53% over the last year while new projects have grown by only 11%. The increase in construction clearly doesn’t tell the whole story. The article concludes that the cause of most of the fatal construction site accident is the failure to take basic steps to protect workers and prevent accidents. The Commissioner of the Department of Investigation characterized construction safety in New York City “as a real problem.” It seems like the press and some of the city agencies are starting to truly grasp this problem. The mantra “Profits over People” is not just a gimmicky slogan. It is happening on our streets and sidewalks every day.
There does not appear to be a slowdown when it comes to the construction boom. New York City’s Mayor has big plans for expanding affordable housing throughout the city and, thus, construction activity will continue to surge. Is there a solution to the construction safety epidemic? Regulating the city because of the sheer volume of projects and construction activity is a daunting prospect. It is well known that the Buildings Department is currently ill-equipped to root out problem contractors prior to a tragedy. The staffing and resources are just not in place. Instead they are responding to accidents after the fact. More funding and capable bodies can help the problem but it will not solve the problem. We need to make sure that projects are being awarded to safety conscious companies who are committed to training their employees, planning to perform safe work and providing their workers with the right type of equipment to get the job done. There needs to be a uniform sentiment that places a priority on the safety of the worker over the profit margin of the job; it needs to be far more of a concern for everyone to go home to their families safe than for a job to be completed faster. Can society come up with incentives to make these ideals a reality?
Take some time to read this compelling article. It will impact you, if nothing else.
Block O’Toole & Murphy is a law firm that is committed to fighting on behalf of injured workers. The lawyers at this firm have recovered more than $900 million in verdicts and settlements for their clients. You may also contact them for a free consultation at 212-736-5300.