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Digging Into New York City’s Sad Construction Safety Record

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A recent New York Times story reported what those in the construction industry already knew: The current construction boom in New York City has brought with it a big increase in construction fatalities and deaths. What may not be so obvious is the effect of this among New York’s immigrant community and especially among undocumented immigrants.

The most sobering aspect of this phenomenon is that the increase in deaths and injuries is far greater than one would expect based on the growth in NYC construction projects. This is proof, according to the article, that safety measures in the city’s construction industry are “woefully inadequate.”

The Times reviewed every construction fatality in the past two years and found that many were “completely avoidable,” a phrase also used in a federal accident investigation report.

Many sites where workers died had failed to take basic and required steps to prevent falls. Workers did not wear harnesses and helmets. There was frequently little if any supervision. Speed took precedence over safety.

The news media focused on deaths and injuries in midtown Manhattan, where about a quarter of the fatalities occurred. Most of the projects where workers were killed were smaller and often nonunion worksites. Workers were often poorly trained on these sites. Business owners frequently had records of unpaid safety violation fines.

Seven Construction Workers Have Died in NYC Since July

Since July, seven construction workers have died on the job, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) reported 10 construction fatalities between July 2014 and July 2015. In the previous four years, the annual average of fatal construction accidents was 5.5. Unless something changes significantly, the year 2015, whether fiscal or calendar, will be worse than previous time periods when it comes to fatal construction accidents.

The bad news is not limited to construction site fatalities. In the last fiscal year (July 2014-Juy 2015), the number of construction workers injured on the job increased by 53 percent. The number of incidents increased by 52 percent.

In contrast, according to the Times story, the number of building permits increased by only 11 percent for new projects and by 6 percent for other types of construction work.

Blaming the construction boom for the increase in injuries and deaths is clearly a misguided effort to put a positive spin on these tragedies: The number of construction projects has increased, so we should expect increased deaths and injuries if we follow this line of thinking. But nothing in the numbers suggests that the accidents are simply the result of increased activity. Something else is going on.

Contractors Cut Corners With Untrained Workers Who Will Not Complain About Safety

The construction industry in New York City has always been a place where immigrants could find work. Irish workers in the 19th century and workers from Eastern Europe in more recent years have been the backbone of the construction trades in New York City. But unlike these earlier groups, many of today’s immigrant construction workers are not authorized to work in the United States.

Today’s construction workers are highly vulnerable because of their immigration status. They are usually untrained, are paid in cash and hesitate to speak up about dangerous workplace conditions and low wages because of their immigration status. Such employees are often ghosts who leave very little trace after they die.

When friends and families try to find out why these workers died, employers have little if anything to say. They have broken the law by employing undocumented workers, but proving their illegal behavior is difficult because no records are kept.

The actions of these construction companies are not just illegal; they are heartless. One family of an Indian immigrant killed last year never heard anything from the man’s employer. In fact, the boss, whom the worker had considered a friend after working for him for 13 years, said that he did not know the name of the dead worker.

After the man fell while working on the Dream Hotel project, the construction company owner told investigators that he did not know much about construction, could not read drawings and plans, and never went on scaffolding because of a heart condition.

The deceased worker, Gurmeet Singh, was not wearing a safety harness. He had a fake OSHA safety training card. The scaffolding from which he fell had been altered by untrained employees who were not supervised. The result of the OSHA investigation after Mr. Singh’s death was a $42,000 fine against the construction company.

To add insult to injury, Mr. Singh’s daughters stated that at the time of his death, their father had not been paid in three months. However, the owner of the company, Adulat Khan, apparently had the resources to move onto other projects and received a permit to renovate an Upper West Side apartment building, despite the weak safety records of his multiple companies.

Worst Violators Often Have Multiple Safety Citations

Having poor safety records does not seem to be a deterrent to obtaining contracts. Five of the seven deaths since July have occurred on job sites of contractors or subcontractors with records of previous OSHA or DOB violations. OSHA fines are viewed as slaps on the wrist, simply a cost of doing business. They do not act as deterrents to contractors and subcontractors who deliberately flout safety rules.

Despite Mayor’s Efforts, Things Will Probably Not Get Better Anytime Soon

Because there is so much construction and so few inspectors, regulating all worksites is challenging, to say the least. To address this, the mayor’s office has pledged to hire 100 more building inspectors and upgrade reporting tools to try to identify and shut down contractors with bad safety records. However, the building trades and the relevant regulatory agencies in the city have a history of corruption, payoffs and ignorance, making the outcome of the mayor’s efforts uncertain.

Things are not much better at the federal level. There are only 33 inspectors in the city and 66 statewide. It is the lowest staffing level in five years, even as construction booms.