By Richard Roberts, Business Agent at Large,
Steamfitters Local 638
So far in 2015, there have been at least nine New York City construction site fatalities. That eclipses eight recorded in 2014 and four in 2013.
The majority were preventable, resulting from neglected adherence to safety provisions and laws in place to protect professionals in one of the most dangerous occupations.
Last year, construction spending in the Big Apple was $36 billion or 26% higher than 2013, as construction employment reached 122,975 jobs, the highest since 2008, according to the New York Building Congress.
Given the critical importance to New York City’s economy, safety on construction worksites should be of utmost concern.
Most recently, a 25-year old construction worker and Air Force veteran plummeted 24 stories to his death at a 30-story non-union hotel construction site on West 46th Street. Just days prior, the Afghanistan war veteran told a military buddy his job is “not like the Air Force. It’s not safe out here.”
The New Jersey company he worked for was not licensed to work in the city and in July 2013, that same construction site closed after another worker fell from the fifth floor. The project’s general contractor has already defaulted on $16,000 in fines to the city, according to DOB records.
The New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health (NYCOSH) finds that 89 percent of fatal falls, the leading cause of death in construction accidents, occurred on sites with existing OSHA safety violations. An overwhelming 79 percent of all fatal falls were at non-union construction sites.
In another fatal accident in April, a father of two was crushed by a crane at a 35-story non-union hotel construction project on East 44th Street.
That worksite had also received numerous complaints and two stop-work orders from DOB.
These fatal construction accidents show a clear pattern of disregard for basic safety standards, and the data illustrates that non-union construction sites accounted for 75 percent of New York City construction fatalities in 2014 and non-union firms are 90 percent of the employers in OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program.
It’s a sad fact that over and over again on non-union worksites, basic safety training and equipment can be non-existent.
According to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, workers at non-union construction worksites have less access to formal safety training and nonunion workers score lower on safety performance scores than their union counterparts.
This safety and training gap repeatedly leads to serious injuries or loss of life.
The NY State Attorney General and City Department of Investigation have needed to intervene to obtain unpaid wages from fly-by-night contractors evading paying their workers.
In April, five contractors on local public works projects were arrested for nearly $1 million in wage theft and attempting to run kickback schemes.
In December three other subcontractors were arrested for underpaying workers and violating state prevailing-wage laws.
Lacking basic healthcare coverage, God forbid these workers get seriously hurt on the job.
It is a misconception that employing union labor in New York is much more expensive. In fact it can be the opposite.
A three year study of 1,185 construction projects in the United States and Europe by Independent Project Analysis revealed that union workers in the construction industry in fact are more productive than non-union by an astounding 17 percent.
No matter the circumstances, neglecting safety standards in place to protect human life should never be a part of the risk and return ratio for a builder or investors making a profit.
The evidence is clear that there is a difference in safety, productivity and we believe quality, too.
The bottom line of achieving safe, productive construction in New York City lies in the responsibility of developers, building owners, elected leaders and workers alike. The lives, future homes and businesses of New Yorkers should never be jeopardized under any circumstances.