The New York Times reported today a jump in construction accidents, with a high participation of Hispanic workers in small non-union jobs. I have posted often on the higher rate of fatalities and injuries sustained by Hispanic construction workers. I have written an article on this problem for Risk & Insurance Magazine. Part of the problem is the grey labor market that exists with illegal working immigrants. The Pew Hispanic Center has estimated that, nationwide, 29% of all roofers are illegal workers. This kind of work safety problem is exactly the kind of problem which a guest worker program will help to overcome.
Fatal construction accidents have grown at an alarming rate in New York City, rising 61 percent in the year that ended on Sept. 30, amid a continuing building boom, officials said yesterday. Many of the 29 victims were Hispanic immigrants working for small contractors in nonunion jobs.
Falls from hanging scaffolds have been the single greatest factor in the increase. Top officials of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the city’s Buildings Department said they were disturbed by the trend and vowed vigorous enforcement of safety rules and unannounced inspections of construction sites.
Some advocates for workers said those efforts were long overdue, asserting that regulators had failed to safeguard workers during the flurry of construction.
In the 12 months that ended on Sept. 30, 17 of the 29 construction workers who died in work-related accidents fell to their deaths. In the previous year, 18 construction workers were killed, 9 in falls.
Richard Mendelson, OSHA’s area director for Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, said the “dramatic increase” in fatalities was preventable.
“These are all needless, excess deaths in the city,” he told the Building Trades Employers’ Association, an umbrella group for the city’s largest contractors and construction managers. “And they put workers at risk, they put the public at risk, they really put the industry at risk, because employers who cut corners ultimately suffer not only lawsuits, but also OSHA enforcement and city enforcement.”
Of the 28 incidents in which the 29 workers were killed, 19 involved companies with 10 or fewer workers and 21 involved workers who were immigrants or had limited English proficiency and 24 involved nonunionized workers.
Mr. Mendelson said that unionized workers were not immune from accidents, but had a better safety record. “There’s no reason why nonunion workers should have a lower level of protection,” he said. “Obviously there’s a disparity here.”
On Nov. 2, Patricia J. Lancaster, commissioner of the Buildings Department, announced the creation of a task force to examine scaffold safety, a day after a 25-year-old Ecuadorean immigrant fell to his death outside an office building near Union Square. His harness was not attached to a safety line, officials said, and his employer had not obtained the proper permits or provided adequate monitoring and training. The panel is to issue its report by Dec. 18.
Louis J. Coletti, the president of the Building Trades Employers’ Association, who is on the task force, said that many small firms that use nonunion labor openly flout laws and regulations. “They don’t file building permits,” he said. “They don’t care about their workers. They don’t care about public safety. They want to get in, get the job done, go to the next one and put the money in their pocket.”
Another task force member, Joel A. Shufro, the executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, said enforcement of building safety requirements has been feeble at best.
“The administration has moved forward to finally consider this epidemic of fatalities, and it’s about time,” he said. “Whether they have the political will to move aggressively to perform inspections and impose strong fines on employers remains to be seen.”
Ms. Lancaster conceded that many violators elude the city’s notice. “We’re complaint-driven,” she told the building executives at a conference on safety in Midtown, adding, “We have repeatedly asked you all to drop a dime and help us out with this, because we can’t be everywhere.” The number of complaints, she said, has increased to 140,000 a year from 38,000 in 2002, when she was appointed.
Ms. Lancaster presented a detailed analysis of recent accident trends. She said the number of accidents involving hanging scaffolds had surged to 19 so far this year, from 11 last year and 5 in 2004. Another fall from a scaffold occurred yesterday, but no one was injured.
As of Nov. 1, there were 88 construction accidents in the city this year, resulting in 15 deaths and 98 injuries. Ms. Lancaster noted that $45 billion worth of construction is planned for the city in the next 10 years. “Citywide, we see a boom as well as rising real estate prices, in such a way that construction in every borough becomes more important to every citizen than it ever has been before,” she said.
The department’s Building Enforcement Safety Team, which is responsible for high-rise construction projects that are at least 15 stories or 200 feet tall or 100,000 square feet or larger, is now monitoring 127 buildings. Construction is about to start on another 56 high-rises.
High-rise builders are being cited more often for failing to remove debris and to protect sidewalk sheds, among other violations. The number of stop-work orders issued for high-rises is projected to grow to 380 this year from 318 last year.
At new buildings lower than 15 stories, the department is considering requiring contractors to appoint trained construction superintendents to be available at all times to answer questions from the city and to be responsible for maintaining safe conditions. Each superintendent would have to be a licensed architect or engineer or to have worked as a superintendent, carpenter, mason or building inspector for at least 5 of the last 10 years.
The department has recently tightened requirements in several other areas.
A city law that took effect on Sunday requires that any supported scaffold 40 feet or taller have a Buildings Department permit. Anyone erecting, dismantling or repairing such a scaffold must receive at least 32 hours of training, while anyone using such a scaffold must receive at least 4 hours of training. The new law does not apply to stand-alone one-story sidewalk sheds.
Edwin G. Foulke Jr., the assistant secretary of labor in charge of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said the agency has set up a Web site and a telephone hotline for Spanish speakers and arranged for translators whom agency inspectors can reach by cellphone.
“We’re also going to more pictorial-type information,” Mr. Foulke said. The images, he added, “will highlight what the hazard is and what is the proper way to avoid those hazards.”