Study Finds Lax Safety Standards at Construction Sites
By FERNANDA SANTOS (NYT)
Published: October 18, 2005
On Nov. 24, 2003, Manuel Falcón, an Ecuadorean laborer, died after falling from the roof of a house he had been working on in South Ozone Park, Queens. Mr. Falcón was not wearing a hard hat, tethering cord or any other safety gear.
When federal safety inspectors investigated the work site after Mr. Falcón's death, they found three violations and eventually levied a total fine of $2,625. The fine could have been a maximum of $7,000 for each violation, for a total of $21,000. The circumstances of Mr. Falcón's death, and the minimal punishment that followed, illustrate the core conclusions of a study by the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, which is set for release tomorrow: inadequate supervision of city construction sites and the low penalties imposed on violators make it easy for builders to ignore safety rules.
''The industry fines are considered a cost of doing business and are too minimal to effect a change in behavior,'' the association's president, Benedict P. Morelli, said yesterday.
The study examines reports prepared by federal safety inspectors after construction accidents in New York City between January 2001 and August of this year that resulted in death or serious injury. A total of 156 accidents were analyzed; all but 12 resulted in at least one fatality.
According to the study, inspectors penalized builders at 113 of the accident sites for violations like insufficient guardrails and safety nets. In most cases, fines amounted to no more than $10,000; only six of the violations resulted in fines greater than $50,000, the study says.
In one accident that resulted in unusually high fines, Efrain Gonzalez and four other workers fell to their deaths when a scaffold at a Gramercy Park office building collapsed four years ago at Park Avenue South. Inspectors found seven ''serious'' violations, and a fine of $9,750 was levied out of a possible maximum of $49,000. But the inspectors also found two ''willful'' violations and the maximum fine of $140,000 was imposed for them.
The inspectors work for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a branch of the federal Labor Department that sets and enforces standards for workplace safety. OSHA's penalties should at least be severe enough to deter future lapses, said Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a nonprofit organization supported by about 200 local unions.
The average penalty for serious safety violations, in which severe injury or death is highly likely, is $1,569, according to the trial lawyers' study. The maximum prison sentence for a safety violation is six months under federal law, but from 1990 to 2003, there were only four cases nationwide in which a builder found to be at fault was imprisoned, the study says.
A spokesman for the federal safety and health agency, Ted Fitzgerald, declined to comment yesterday, saying he had not had a chance to review the study.
In addition to the low penalties, the study lists inadequate supervision as a reason that builders do not feel compelled to comply with safety regulations. Only 28 safety inspectors cover construction and renovation sites in New York City, northern New Jersey, and Westchester and Rockland Counties, allowing inspection of an average of six sites a day in the entire region, the study says.
Nearly half of the 156 accidents examined in the study involved falls from a scaffold, roof or ladder. Immigrant workers were the most common victims, amounting to two-thirds of those killed or injured since October 2001, when OSHA began to include in its reports the language the worker spoke on the job.
''The rapid growth of New York City's underground construction industry, an industry that employs mostly immigrants and where worker safety often takes the back seat, makes credible enforcement of OSHA safety standards more important than ever,'' said Glenn von Nostitz, senior policy adviser for the trial lawyers' group.
Correction: October 19, 2005, Wednesday An article yesterday about a study finding safety standards lax at construction sites in the New York region, and a picture caption, gave an incorrect location in some copies for a 2001 scaffolding collapse in which five workers were killed. It was at Park Avenue South and 18th Street, not Park Avenue and 44th.
Photos: Efrain Gonzalez died when a work scaffold collapsed in 2001.; Five workers died when a scaffold collapsed in a construction accident at a Gramercy Park office building at Park Avenue South in 2001. (Photo by Edward Keating/The New York Times)