NY Construction Deaths Rose During First Year of Pandemic

Monday, February 14th, 2022

The construction industry was alarmingly deadlier to New York workers in the first year of the pandemic than in the two preceding years, according to data released by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH). In 2020, the spread of COVID-19 forced construction sites throughout the state to shut down, resulting in fewer employed workers and overall fewer job-related fatalities. However, the fatality rate, rather than the number of fatalities, provides a clearer view of construction site safety conditions in New York State.

In 2020 alone, 41 construction workers were killed across the state, including 14 deaths that occurred in New York City. Although this may seem like an improvement compared to the 55 deaths that occurred in 2019, the fatality rate increased by 9 percent statewide despite fewer job sites operating. Notably, New York City’s fatality rate decreased by 40 percent, which may be attributed to the shutting down of roughly 85 percent of city construction sites that were considered nonessential.

Sadly, this data reveals that New York continues to have significantly more dangerous construction conditions than other areas of the country, according to NYCOSH executive director, Charlene Obernauer. She highlighted, “One of the biggest disappointments is that OSHA conducted its fewest number of inspections in the history of the agency.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Labor, conducted the lowest number of inspections ever in New York in 2020. According to the report shared by NYCOSH, the number of inspections decreased by 53 percent from 2019 to 2020. Regulation of job sites by OSHA officials is a crucial part of holding property owners and general contractors accountable for the safety of their workers. Without regular inspections, work sites are left free to ignore safety rules and regulations that otherwise force them to invest more time or money into a project. According to the NYCOSH report, 97 percent of worker deaths occurred on sites with existing OSHA violations. These negligent employers must be held accountable.

The report also showed that the majority of workers killed on New York construction sites in 2020 were non-union. Additionally, many of these workers were Latino. Latino workers are generally less likely to be unionized, which provides them with far fewer resources than their unionized counterparts. In general, union members are provided with more training, have easier means of reporting safety violations, and can rely on their organizations to protect them against employer retaliation if they do report a violation. Unfortunately, only 17 percent of New York City workers and 23 percent of New York State workers are unionized, leaving the majority of workers with fewer resources to keep them safe from workplace hazards.

Notably, workers who are undocumented may face even greater risks on construction sites. Many undocumented workers are taken advantage of by employers who may use their immigration status against them. Undocumented immigrant workers may fear losing their jobs or even deportation should they report any safety violations. These individuals should know that they do have rights and protections guaranteed by both federal and state laws. For additional information, please visit our page discussing the legal rights of undocumented construction workers.

Overall, according to The Gotham Gazette, labor advocates attribute New York construction deaths to “gaps in union representation, the exploitation of immigrant workers, and a system that does little to penalize contractors for unsafe working conditions.” Proposed improvements to the state’s currently subpar construction safety conditions include:

  • The passage of Carlos’ Law, which would establish new crimes for endangering workers and would increase fines for employers who commit those crimes
  • The possibility of suspending/revoking licenses and construction permits for contractors with repeated OSHA violations
  • Passage of a bill that would prohibit federal electronic background checks that reveal the immigration status of workers and consequently force undocumented workers to take less safe, non-union jobs

All construction workers, regardless of immigration status, have a legal right to a safe work environment. We support all efforts made to boost worker voices and provide them with the resources they need and deserve to do their jobs safely.

The construction accident lawyers at Block O’Toole & Murphy have a proven track record of helping injured workers obtain the compensation they are legally entitled to, which includes a $15,000,000 settlement in a wrongful death case for the surviving family of an HVAC technician who was killed when a 28,450-pount chiller unit fell onto him.

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