New York construction safety expert: safe practices hard to find in Brooklyn

Study Finds Lax Safety Standards at Construction Sites
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)

Migrant Clinicians Network

The Migrant Clinicians Network engages in healthcare delivery and healthcare research for low income workers including but not exclusively migrant workers. Their new Saving Lives by Changing Practice project is attempting to improve the quality of service to work injured clients. Amy Liebman is coordinating the program. She provided me with this introduction to the program.
For an earlier posting on community health clinic services to injured workers, go here.
Amy K. Liebman, MPA
Migrant Clinicians Network
There are numerous barriers to recognizing and treating environmental and occupational health (EOH) problems in the primary care setting. Some of the underlying reasons are the limited EOH training front line providers receive as well as institutional challenges that prevent clinicians from adequately addressing EOH problems.

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Inconsistent quality of healthcare for work injured immigrant workers

Many low income immigrant workers go to hospital emergency departments and to free care community health clinics with their work injuries. Emergency departments and community health clinics typically do not understand how to determine the occupational cause of injury, and do not try to contact the employer and to make sure that an injured worker accesses the workers comp system.
The clinics in particular often appear to be tone deaf to the special needs of injured workers. Example: I contacted the Joseph Smith Community Health Center in Boston, which actively serves low income immigrants, a dozen times to ask them about how they handle work injuries. To get a response i finally conducted a sit-in in the reception area, refusing to leave until I spoke with some one. Eventually the director of the clinic came downstairs. While pleasant, she showed zero interest in the special needs of injured workers, and in investigating them further.
My several contacts with the Health Resources and Services Administration, the federal agency responsible for providing financial and technical assistance to community health clinics, revealed that this agency has little interest in addressing the special needs of injured workers.

Time Magazine poll on views about illegal immigration

Time Magazine February 6 2006 issue’s cover story is “Inside America’s Secret Workforce.”
Here are some Time Magazine polling results:
How serious a problem is illegal immigration into the U.S.? – Extremely 30% Very 33% Somewhat 26% Not very 8%
Concerned that providing social services for illegal immigrants costs taxpayers too much – 83%
Concerned that illegal immigrants increase crime – 71%
Illegal immigrants are taking jobs that citizens don’t want – 56%
Do you pay less for some items or services because of low-wage illegal immigrant labor? Yes 17% No 71%
Had hired a contractor or company that may have used illegal immigrants – 14%
Is the government doing enough to keep illegal immigrants from entering the U.S.? — Yes 21% No 74%
All illegal immigrants should be deported – 50%, but —-
Illegal immigrants should be able to earn citizenship – 76%
Favor guest-worker registration for those already here – 73%
Favor issuing temporary work visas for seasonal work – 64%

H-1B visas and the engineering workforce shortage, per Chair of Intel

Craig Barrett, Chair of Intel, recently wrote a commentary for the Financial Times (payment required) and afterwards responded to reader questions.
Begun in 1998, the H-1B program has annual caps which in 2003 was 195,000. In 2004 the cap was cut to 65,000. As of 2004, close to 1,000,000 H-1B visa holders were believed to be working in the United States, up from about 360,000 in 1998. This means an annual addition of about 150,000 workers a year into the American workforce.
Compare this stream to the supply of engineers coming from American higher education (many of whom are foreigners)? In 2004, there were about 70,000 bachelor, 40,000 master, and 6,000 doctoral degrees were awarded by American colleges and universities. This is from the American Society of Engineering Education
H1B Visa (Professional in a Specialty Occupation) allows a U.S. employer to fill a position requiring the minimum of a baccalaureate in the particular field with a qualified worker from abroad. The foreign worker must possess that U.S. degree or an acceptable foreign alternative. In some cases, a combination of studies and relevant experience may substitute for the degree if it is determined by a credentials expert to qualify the foreign professional. The large majority of H1B visa holders are believed to be engineers.
Per Barrett:

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Access to medical care denied by ID requirements

Something that American citizens take for granted — picking up your medical prescription at the pharmacy. Not so if your personal ID is iffy and the state is trying to crack down on medication abuses. This case is from Mississippi.
The state began to insist on personal identification to crack down on drug abuse and by failing to educate pharmacies made life more complicated for innocent undocumented workers. Mississippi recognizes the right of work-injured undocumented workers to protections of the workers compensation system. It introduced drug procedures to help in fraud and abuse control.

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High future demand for immigrant construction workers

Demand for immigrants in the construction field has been strong since the mid 1990s and will continue to be for several reasons. (1) New and replacement construction will continue to grow, though experts say at a lower rate. (2) Among many construction jobs there is a high turnover rate, and employers have constantly to search for new hires. (3) Demographics will continue to bring construction to areas of the country where there is a high level already of immigrant workers in construction.
In a keynote address at a construction risk management conference on trends and emerging issues, Huge Rice of FMI forecasted high construction activityin the United States, in part due to demographic shifts in age and residential location. Between 2002 and 2012, he forecasted 1.1 million new construction projects involving 1.4 “retirements/defections” and 2.5 million replacements/new entrants. Rice specifically addressed the Hispanic construction workforce. He noted the demographics of the country and the southwest, where Hispanics now make up about a third to a half of all construction labor:
New Mexico 48%
Texas 45%
California 34%
Florida 21%
Total nationwide Hispanic employment in construction rose between 1980 and 2000:
1980 342,000
1990 650,000
1995 782,000
2000 1,408,000
Three quarters of these Hispanic workers are of Mexican descent.
The Federal government addressed construction labor growth in a number of accessible studies, including one in 2002 and a set in the November, 2005 issue of the Monthly Labor Review.
According to the Department of Labor, construction jobs grew at an annual rate of 3.1% between and 2004. DOL expects much slower growth between 2004 and 2014, about 1.1% annually. However, in terms of total jobs added in that period, 792,000, construction will be the fourth largest contributor to job growth (after retail, employment services, food services, and medical offices). Residential construction, where immigrant labor tends to congregate, is expected to grow in dollars by 1.8% . annually. Construction workers make up slightly under 5% of the domestic civilian workforce.

Immigration officials to continue to impersonate OSHA safety trainers

In July 2005 federal immigration officials impersonated OSHA safety trainers in a sting to lure and arrest illegal aliens working for subcontractors at an airforce base in North Carolina. See below for the first paragraphs of a New York Times article on that event.
The blog Confined Space now reports that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials reportedly plan to continue this tactic, according to Inside OSHA (paid subscription):

Immigration officials told immigration and labor groups during a closed-door meeting Jan. 30 that the department will continue to have its agents pose as officials from other agencies, including OSHA, to nab illegal immigrants at work sites, despite earlier signals the policy would be dropped. The meeting was set up to discuss last year’s controversial sting operation where ICE officials posed as OSHA employees, which had prompted an outcry from labor groups and concerns from OSHA.

OSHA was not present at the meeting.

ICE officials told attendees of the meeting that the department’s first priority is national security and public safety and they would not change their controversial sting policy, according to sources involved in the discussions. In a letter sent to [the National Immigrant Law Center] NILC last year, ICE officials said they would no longer continue the practice, however, they now say they view everything from a threat-based level and would continue to increase their work site enforcement of food production companies and industries related to national security, the sources say.

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Avian flu and immigrant workers in poultry plants

A noted occupational health expect warns of avian flu coming into the United States via poultry plants and the largely immigrant work population. He warns that these workers should not be treated as canaries in the mine shaft.
Gary Greenberg MD manages a new non-profit aimed at speeding up transmission of time sensitive information on occupational risks: OHDEN, or the Occupational Health Disaster Expert Network.
Greenberg says the following scenarios could occur. Twoinvolve the arrival in the United States of a migratory bird with the avian flu:
1. a person could pick up a dead bird by the roadside
2. a local — not corporate –chicken farm serves as a way station for a migratory bird. The corporate chicken farms appear to have invested in bio-safety measures.
3. an individual arrives by plane from another, with the flu still in gestation.
Greenberg says that the avian flu does not transmit easily amomng people — it is not like the flu of 1918 – 1919, which swept through army camps, among ship crews, and onto city streets, and took years to eventually dissappear.

National Employment Law Project on wage abuses

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) describes itself as a non profit law and policy organization advocating on behalf of low-wage, unemployed and immigrant workers. It has recently published two papers on civil and criminal penalties for non-payment of wages. Non-payment, delays in payment, and failure to pay overtime are common complaints among immigrant workers.
The two papers are Fifty state chart of penalties for unpaid wages and Criminal penalties for failure to pay wages