En Español Know Your Rights
Source: City Limits
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Trying to Make it Safer to Do a Dangerous Job

The recent
construction site accident at the Trump Soho residential hotel – in which
worker Yurly Vanchytskyy fell more than 40 stories to his death – has brought
fresh attention to a longstanding problem. That is, the matter of safety, of
both workers and the public, at development sites and within the city’s aging
housing stock.

The Jan. 14
death follows a series of other construction accidents in 2007, such as the
retaining wall that crumbled at an Upper West Side site in July, the fire at
Deutsche Bank in lower Manhattan in August, and, in December, the window washer
who fell to his death on the Upper East Side crane and the crane that snapped
at the Morgan Stanley site in lower Manhattan, nearly killing an architect
working inside a trailer. In light of these incidents, observers both within
and without the construction industry are refocusing attention on how to
improve construction site safety citywide.

There’s no
question that construction and related fields are perilous jobs. According to
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data on work fatalities, construction deaths in
New York City
more than doubled from 2005 to 2006, from 20 to 43. (Data for 2007 is not yet
available.) Over that period, New York City also
had a higher percentage of construction deaths than the U.S. overall,
according to BLS: "the construction sector accounted for 43 percent of all
fatalities; nationally, construction also led other sectors … accounting for
21 percent of all job-related fatal injuries." The city’s Department of
Buildings (DOB), however, reported that between Jan. 1, 2007 and Oct. 31, 2007,
construction-related fatalities dropped 43 percent from the same period in
2006, from 14 to 8, and injuries stayed constant – but accidents on high-rise
sites increased from 23 to 42.

Tallies
aside, the often dramatic incidents have led an array of elected officials,
activists and leaders in the industry itself to take steps to improve
construction worker safety and stem illegal activity at worksites that may
contribute to the injury and death toll. Efforts include re-introducing state
legislation that would make DOB more answerable to communities; creating a more
efficient and streamlined way for DOB to implement regulations; lobbying for
more frequent and thorough enforcement measures; and pushing for increased
funding for building and safety inspectors.

Louis
Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers’ Association – which held
an emergency summit Jan. 23 on concrete-pouring procedures after the Trump
death – says he’d like to see something started that’s similar to the police
department’s COMPSTAT program where “you target the resources where the problem
is.”

“There’s a
different type of developer … a new cadre of developers taking advantage of the
New York
market," Coletti said. "It’s a very different phenomenon than
anything we’ve dealt with before.”

“The only
way it’s [going to improve] is more money set aside for safety people and
building inspectors,” agreed Sal Zarzana, president and business manager of
Carpenters Local Union 926.

Other ideas
on the table include creating voluntary contracts between developers and
community boards, increasing workers’ safety training and overcoming the
language barrier that becomes an obstacle for numerous laborers – as many
construction workers, and victims of recent accidents, are Spanish-speaking
immigrants.

Julissa Bisono, a worker organizer for the worker
advocacy group
Make the Road By Walking, says she sees frequent cases of
worker exploitation. Just about every worker she counsels has been injured on a
job site, Bisono said. “They don’t train me,” is a frequent complaint, she
said, “and Health and Safety only make a quick run-down.”

“There’s no
substitute for training, training and more training,” said Jeff Zogg, executive
director of the General Building Contractors of New York State.
And, he said, “owners need to have greater awareness how risky and dangerous
this business is. …Patience can be a virtue.” At the same time, Zogg warned,
too many rules and regulations “can overburden those [already] complying,
causing delays …there’s a very fine line.”

A report
issued by the Fiscal Policy Institute last month said the construction industry
employs more than 200,000 workers in New York City, almost a quarter of whom
work in the illegal "underground" construction industry. Not only
does this lead to a half-billion-dollar annual financial loss because of unpaid
payroll taxes and workers compensation premiums, according to the report, but
it correlates with dangerous practices. Data from the federal Occupational
Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) “indicate a strong correlation between
construction fatalities and the characteristics of the underground economy:
half of the deaths occurred among workers at very small construction companies,
three-fourths of the workers involved worked for non-union companies, and
failure to provide safety training was cited in over half of the cases.”

The city’s
DOB, which regulates construction in the five boroughs, has a number of
initiatives underway to promote safety, says press secretary Kate Lindquist. The
DOB has an excavations inspection team, a professional certification review and
audits team and a stop work order patrol in operation. As of this month, a new
"construction superintendent rule" went into effect requiring
low-rise buildings to have a registered construction superintendent in order to
get a building permit, and this year "general contractor
registration" will go into effect requiring contractors building one-,
two- or three-family homes to register with the DOB, giving more teeth to enforcement
of low-rise sites, Lindquist said.

Construction
of low-rise buildings – 14 stories and under – is up 31 percent over last year,
and "construction incidents" on such buildings are up 2 percent, from
288 in 2006 to 294 in 2007, she said.

But
"the regulation framework within New
York City
is geared toward high-rise construction,”
maintains Coletti of the building trades association. He also thinks DOB is not
proactive enough. “DOB has always been reactive,” he said, voicing a sentiment
echoed repeatedly by those interviewed. Until recently, “it was the Wild West
show out there. They need more resources.”

Industry
insiders and residents have been expressing concern about the pace at which
buildings are going up. Officials need to “take a close look at the accelerated
schedules—are they unsafe job conditions?” Coletti asked. Soho residents had
been complaining about how quickly the top floors of the Trump building were
built – concrete that wasn’t given enough time to dry is suspected as the cause
of the structural failure there – and given that the building faced strong
opposition in the neighborhood from the get-go, some wonder whether the
contractor was rushing to complete the building before legal challenges to the
controversial building were heard.

Cracking
down on violators has proven effective. With building in NYC going gangbusters,
scaffold-related accidents jumped high enough that the city felt it had to take
action. In 2006, Mayor Bloomberg’s "Suspended Scaffold Worker Safety Task
Force" was created; Coletti served as chair. Their investigations often
found contractors not employing licensed master riggers, as the law requires –
and not suffering penalties. The legislation resulting from the task force,
said Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee on Occupational
Safety and Health, had a “salutary effect” on safety, proving “you can have an
impact.” In April, Mayor Bloomberg signed several scaffolding-related laws that
increase penalties, and DOB has reported an 83 percent decrease in
scaffolding-related fatalities since then.

Other
construction safety efforts underway include:

• State
Assemblyman James Brennan, a Brooklyn Democrat, held hearings into problems
with the DOB in 2006 and introduced several reform-minded bills last year.
Three passed the legislature, with Gov. Spitzer vetoing legislation mandating
re-inspection every 60 days for hazardous violations, based on the city’s
recommendation that it would be too costly an undertaking. Brennan plans to
redraft and resubmit the bill.

Brennan
said he’ll again push for a "DOB Community Accountability Act" where
the agency will have to report to community boards and the borough presidents
“accidents, the investigation of the accidents’ circumstances, and all
violations issued.” But the biggest battle he anticipates will be the one over
mandating the licensing of general contractors.

• Since
last year, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has been working on a
"Task Force on Responsible Contracting," a joint effort with local
communities and unions. “I’ve been working to bring community and labor leaders
to the same table so that we can forge a strong consensus behind development
that is safe for workers and neighbors, provides high-quality jobs, and meets
community needs," Stringer said in an e-mail. The group had intended to
approach developers to voluntarily agree on certain policies, but by working
through the community boards they broadened their scope, developing a
questionnaire and checklist to include issues such as employment opportunities,
context, environmental sustainability and impact on infrastructure.

• The
city’s building codes will be updated this summer, for the first time since
1968. The DOB’s website lists new laws modernizing building, fuel gas, mechanical
and some fire safety codes, to name a few. There will be a three-year
phasing-in cycle.

• City
Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced a hearing on construction site safety
for next Monday, Feb. 4 to “examine, among other topics, if we need to enhance
worker training, whether city regulations around high rises are sufficient, if
we have a large enough workforce to keep pace with development demands and
whether the timeframe for the development of high rises is appropriate."

Still,
recent published reports deepen questions about DOB. Christopher Santulli, a
top agency commissioner who is responsible for developer compliance, is working
without a current engineering license, in violation of the law, the New York
Post reported last week. And according to a Daily News report, DOB Commissioner
Patricia Lancaster allegedly signed secret agreements to not reveal problems
with a controversial architect, did several other high-ranking officials – a
practice that’s now banned.

Since the
Trump accident, City Councilman Tony Avella, a Queens Democrat who is running
for mayor, called for Lancaster’s
resignation. “DOB is incompetent, it’s the only way to change the agency …
Never in 25 years of [community service] have I seen so many near accidents and
terrible safety measures.” Avella said that in his district alone “there are
300 to 400 complaints” registered with the agency.

Both Mayor
Bloomberg and Speaker Quinn, however, have subsequently expressed their support
for Lancaster, an architect whom Bloomberg appointed in 2002 with the express
mission of reforming the agency.