Most construction sites where workers died failed to take basic steps to prevent them from falling. Workers frequently did not wear harnesses or helmets, as required by law. Supervision was often lacking. In many of the projects, a premium was placed on speed, causing workers to take dangerous shortcuts.
About a quarter of the deaths took place in Midtown, attracting a vast majority of news media attention for such accidents. But the rest occurred, largely unnoticed, all over the city. They usually involved smaller projects, using nonunion workers, who were often poorly trained. Often the contractors had been previously cited for safety violations and failed to pay penalties.
Seven workers have died on the job since July, including three in a nine-day stretch before Labor Day, according to records of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA.
The city’s Buildings Department keeps its own count of construction deaths, injuries and accidents, offering a broader look at safety year over year. There were 10 construction-related fatalities in the most recent fiscal year, from July 2014 to July 2015, according to city figures. In contrast, the annual average over the previous four years was 5.5.
Meanwhile, 324 workers were injured in the last fiscal year, a jump of 53 percent, and the Buildings Department recorded 314 accidents over all, an increase of 52 percent from the year before. The total was more than two and a half times what the city tallied in 2011. In comparison, permits for new construction projects grew by only 11 percent in the last fiscal year and permits for renovation and other work by 6 percent.
“There is absolutely no doubt that there is a real problem with construction safety,” said Mark G. Peters, the commissioner of the city’s Investigation Department, which looks into construction fatalities.
An improving economy and low interest rates helped fuel the current building boom, but there are signs that more is to come. Mayor Bill de Blasio is embracing vertical construction to help make housing more affordable. And uncertainty over the future of a lucrative tax abatement program for developers caused many to rush to file new construction permits this year.
The deaths make clear that the city is being built, or in some cases rebuilt, heavily on the backs of recent immigrants, particularly from Latin America, most of them not authorized to work in this country.
It’s quite simple really. If you want safe workplaces, two things need to happen. First, union contractors should be strongly encouraged. Unions often ensure safe workplaces because safety is not laughed at, nor left up to individual workers who may in fact chafe at the union’s efforts to keep this safe (I talk about this point among loggers in Empire of Timber). Second, you fine the hell out of contractors with safety violations, you follow up with those fine, and you seize the contractor’s assets if they don’t pay and prosecute them personally for violations and contempt. But there are far, far too few regulators for the amount of places they need to inspect, a problem throughout the American regulatory structure. This is a major advantage for employers, who fight with their Republican allies to undermine these regulatory agencies for exactly this reason. The result is dead workers.