Friday, November 24, 2006

Building Boom Dooms NY Construction Workers

In workplace safety circles, 2006 will generally be known as the year of Sago, the year when coal mine fatalities more than doubled over 2005. But another lesser known tragedy has also erupted this year in the City of New York:
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.


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.


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.
The rise in fatalities mirror a rise in construction activity in the city making it increasingly difficult for underfunded and understaffed state and federal enforcement agencies to do their jobs.
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.”
Not surprisingly, it's the non-union sites that are the most dangerous.
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.”
Well, maybe nonunion workers shouldn't die more often, but they do -- and for good reasons: less training about safety, less training about rights, and less protection for those who complain.

Meanwhile, in Washington DC, federal OSHA is swinging into action:
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.”
As we've always said, worker education is good, particularly in the language that workers understand. But where we have a situation where we have mostly immigrant employees working in unorganized workplaces for unscrupulous employers who cut corners on safety and fire anyone who complains, sure, strong enforcement and meaningful penalties are the only way you're going to significantly reduce the number of accidents.