Photographer Michael Nigro captured this photo of hundreds of construction workers and union members who demonstrated in lower Manhattan on Jan. 18, 2017, in a planned act of civil disobedience. They are carrying coffins and grave markers representing the construction workers who have died in New York in recent months. Thirty-one people were "arrested," to symbolize the 31 construction site deaths that have occurred in New York City in the past 24 months.
Construction workers, safety advocates, unions and elected officials are calling for more worker training, safer worksites and stronger regulations to help curb the number of injuries and fatalities occurring at construction sites in the state of New York.
The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) along with members from Greater New York LECET, the Building and Construction Trades Council, New York City Council members and community organizations gathered Jan. 18 to release its latest construction fatality report, “Deadly Skyline: An Annual Report on Construction Fatalities in New York State.”
Researchers found that employers routinely violate worksite safety regulations with impunity.
“We need to take action now to end the crisis of rising construction fatalities in New York State,” said Charlene Obernauer, executive director of NYCOSH. “These deaths are almost always preventable and occur on non-union job sites 80 percent of the time. Latino workers compose the majority of fall fatalities – 57 percent in 2015 – and there is a strong correlation between employers who steal workers’ wages and who force workers to work under unsafe conditions.”
NYCOSH unveiled report findings on the day that a package of legislation was introduced by the New York City Council. NYCOSH explicitly called for legislation including an increase in training for construction workers and mandatory apprenticeship programs on large construction sites to create safer job sites.
One worker, Prentice Miller of Brooklyn, spoke at the event on the need for effective apprenticeship programs: “I was working in the non-union construction industry before Laborers Local 79 recruited me,” said Miller. “Laborer’s rigorous apprenticeship program immediately provided me with training at no cost for my OSHA 10 card and other certifications, along with classes on how to avoid injuries and how to quickly assess if the job site is safe.”
He added that he thought the combination of classroom and hands-on training “is the key to not only becoming a skilled trades person, but it also ensures we work safe in one of the most dangerous industries out there.”
Patrick Purcell, executive director of the Greater New York Laborer-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust, said the “Deadly Skyline” report illustrates that preventable construction fatalities are on the rise in New York City and the only way to end what he called an “epidemic” is with training and enforcement of safety regulations.
The legislation introduced in the New York City Council “ will ensure stringent safety and training standards,” said Purcell.
Gary LaBarbera, president of the 100,000 member Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said the new data from the NYCOSH report “shows an astounding increase in worker fatalities in New York State and New York City, as well as safety violations at 90 percent of construction fatality sites. The new legislation introduced by the city council will go a long way towards creating higher standards in the industry and prevent more needless deaths of our brothers and sisters.”
Impact of Unsafe Worksites on Immigrant Workers
Speakers also addressed the disproportionate impact that unsafe job sites have on immigrant construction workers. Latinos were found to make up 57 percent of fall fatalities in New York State – 33 percent of whom died on sites with willful violations – versus 5 percent of non-Latinos.
“This report confirms the lived experience of many immigrant construction workers: negligent employers do not limit exploitation to one aspect of their business: overwhelmingly the same employers who cheat workers out of their lawful wages ignore health and safety regulations as well. Increasing training requirements for high-risk jobs and expanding monitoring and enforcement is an important step towards creating a safe jobs and changing an industry that thrives on exploitation of immigrant communities,” said Deb Axt, co-executive director of Make the Road New York.
According to Omar Henriquez, regional organizer of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, new legislation at both the city and state level to hold contractors responsible for workers getting killed on the job “is certainly needed... Far too many workers, particularly immigrant workers, die as a result of contractors’ willful negligence of not providing a safe workplace.”
Members of the New York City Council attended the event to speak to the need for construction safety legislation at the City level.
“One fatality at a construction site is one too many and the city should be doing everything in its power to ensure the highest standards of safety are met,” said Councilman I. Daneek Miller. He added that the report will help city council members develop ways to meet the goal of reducing construction site fatalities and injuries.
“The fact that 464 construction workers died on the job in the past 10 years is unacceptable,” said Council Member Rafael Espinal. “Workers have been falling out of the sky at alarming rates and it is time we do something about it. That is why I stand firmly with implementing new safety measures and supporting our labor unions. We must take these steps to ensure adequate protections for NYC workers, who put their lives on the line to build the skyline.”
Findings and Recommendations
NYCOSH’s report unveiled a number of findings and recommendations to improve worker safety in New York state, including:
- Workplace fatality rates are trending upward in New York’s construction industry.
- Non-union construction sites are especially dangerous for workers.
- Employers who violate health and safety laws also cause worker fatalities.
- Latino construction workers face die at a disproportionate rate due to falls and employers’ “willful” violations of health and safety laws.
- Wage and hour violators are more likely to be safety and health violators.
- Adequate education and training, like OSHA 10-hour courses, should be required for all New York City construction workers and apprenticeship programs for large projects.
- Preserve the Scaffold Safety Law, and pass the NYS Elevator Safety Act that require workers to be licensed.
- Require new “criminal contractors” legislation to establish effective penalties against contractors whose willful negligence causes a worker fatality; and look at revocation of licenses at the city level for employers who are convicted of felonies that cause a worker death.
- Develop new enforcement strategies informed by the intersection between safety and wage violations; and protect Latino workers proactively.
Lack of Support in Some Quarters
Not everyone supports the proposed legislation. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio supports more enforcement of occupational safety and health laws and higher fines for violations. According to him, the requirement for apprenticeship programs might place an undue burden on smaller and non-union contractors.