In an accident that received nearly zero media coverage at the time it occurred, construction worker Carlos Olmedo Lala died in a scaffold fall on a construction site in Harlem on June 22, 2019. Altogether, at least fifteen safety violations have been issued to four different companies regarding the fatal accident, which was not initially reported to the NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) as required under Local Law 78.
A Deadly Work Fall Caused by ‘Shoddy Scaffolding’
The cause of Carlos Olmedo Lala’s death, as reported by the New York Daily News, was a fall from the second level of what was described as “shoddy scaffolding.” The Real Deal further reports that the victim was “installing new façade bricks and repairing existing ones” when he “fell from the second-story of the scaffolding.” The DOB further claims “that the scaffolding did not include proper guardrails and planks to support the workers and that the workers had not undergone required scaffold safety training.”
Altogether, the DOB has issued 15 “aggravated violations” related to the fatal accident, “including tickets for lack of adequate supervision, no record of scaffold installation logs and no records of required inspections,” according to the Daily News.
Two construction companies, Bellet Construction and Zain Contracting, have had their “special rigger licenses” suspended while the accident is under investigation. A hearing with the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings will soon take place, “where DOB will aim to fully revoke the special rigger licenses” of Wayne Bellet of Bellet Construction and Mohammad Bhutta of Zain Contracting for failing “to get the proper permits before erecting shoddy scaffolding” at the Upper Manhattan construction site where Carlos Olmedo Lala was killed, according to the Real Deal.
But these two companies are not the only ones who have been hit with DOB violations regarding the fatal accident. In publicly available DOB records, two other companies were hit with violations for failing to report the fatality within three business days, as is required under Local Law 78 of 2017.
The New York Daily News identifies 880 St. Nicholas LLC as the owner of the building. The Real Deal, however, identifies a company called Shamco Management as the owner of the building. What accounts for the discrepancy? Is it shoddy reporting or shifty dealings by a savvy owner?
It appears that 880 St. Nicholas LLC is a subsidiary or very close affiliate of Shamco Management, muddling the question of where responsibility lies for this accident. The first two DOB violations publicly listed regarding the fatal accident, one for “Failure to carry out demolition operations as required,” and the second for “Work without a permit,” were issued to 880 St. Nicholas LLC on June 22, 2019, the day the fatal accident reportedly occurred.
On August 15, 2019, however, a third violation was issued for a “[Failure] to notify the department of an incident that resulted in a fatality or injury.” This time, the violation was addressed to Shamco Management Corporation, rather than 880 St. Nicholas LLC.
Both 880 St. Nicholas LLC and Shamco Management Corporation are operated out of 505 Thornall Street, Edison, New Jersey, according to the mailing address listed on the DOB violations.
Construction Accident Reporting Still a Problem in NYC
The disturbing trend of not reporting construction accidents to the NYC DOB is not a new one. To reiterate and enforce the responsibility of construction companies to report accidents, Local Law 78 was passed in 2017 to establish fines for companies who do not report “a fatality or injury” that “occurs on a construction site within the city… within three business days after the occurrence of such incident.” A person you are working alongside dies and all you need to do is alert the city within 3 business days. This is hardly a strict standard to comply with. Yet, too often the memories of certain workers fade to black.
Plainly speaking, these accidents go unreported far too often. In 2018, for example, only one construction death was actually reported to the NYC DOB, even though “at least a dozen construction workers died on the job in New York City” that year, according to the Real Deal.
When construction companies behave negligently, it is the responsibility of government and employment agencies such as the DOB and Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) to investigate the accidents and determine who is responsible for allowing them to occur. Then, financial and legal penalties can be applied to hold these companies in some way responsible for their actions.
But when the companies involved deliberately try to hide their involvement in an accident, if that is in fact what occurred in this case, then the punishment needs to be higher than if the parties are forthcoming about their involvement. Otherwise, there is no incentive for construction companies to be honest about accidents that occur on their construction sites, if there is no penalty associated with trying to avoid liability in the first place.
Through this lens, the reported $287,500 in fines levied for this accident are a step in the right direction when you consider that the average fine issued by OSHA for NYC construction fatalities in 2017 was only $21,644, according to New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health (NYCOSH). Although it could easily be argued that these numbers do not come close to approximating the value of a human life, heavy penalties for bad-actor construction companies is a step in the right direction to make New York City a safer place for the construction workers who keep the city running.
‘Much Less Is Known About Lala’
Very little is known at this point about the life and death of Carlos Olmedo Lala. The New York Daily News report on his death ends with the sad note that “Much less is known about Lala [compared to other, better-publicized construction accidents]. A city official familiar with the matter could only provide his name and age.”
Carlos Olmedo Lala deserved better than that, and so did his family. In the little reporting that exists about this incident, four companies are implicated in an accident that remains shrouded in mystery. Hopefully, all of the negligent parties involved in this tragedy can be held responsible, as an example to other construction companies that this type of negligence, let alone this type of deliberate obfuscation, is absolutely unacceptable, and worthy of severe financial and legal ramifications.
We wish the family of Carlos Olmedo Lala all the best as they try to find some modicum of justice amongst a profoundly unjust, troubling and heartbreaking situation.