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NYC Tackles Deadly Construction Toll

Monday, May 18, 2015

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NEW YORK CITY—Fatal construction accidents in New York City are on the rise, drawing calls for action to stem the tide.

A new report calls poorly regulated, dangerous construction sites across the city a "disturbing" trend that merits more inspections, higher fines and criminal enforcement.

"The findings are clear—New York City has an epidemic of construction site deaths, and it has to stop," said Charlene Obernauer, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), which published Price of Life: 2015 Report on Construction Fatalities in NYC.

Surviving Combat, Not Construction

The conclusions of the May 11 report were painfully underscored by the death six days earlier of Christian Ginesi, 25, a decorated U.S. Air Force veteran who survived combat in Afghanistan, only to lose his life one month into his construction job.

Christian Ginesi
Family via New York Daily News

Air Force veteran Christian Ginesi survived deployment to Afghanistan but was killed one month into a construction job in New York. He told friends that he feared construction more than combat.

Ginesi perished May 5 after falling 24 stories down an elevator shaft on a luxury hotel project.

“He would tell us how scared he was” about his job, John Rapp, an Air Force buddy of Ginesi, told the New York Daily News in an exclusive report.

“He said, ‘It’s not like the Air Force. It’s not safe out here.’ But he was happy to have a job.”

Ginesi's employer, New Jersey-based G-Tech Associates LLC, was not licensed to perform work in the city and is now being investigated by the Department of Buildings, the Daily News said.

Stepping Up Enforcement

The 32-page NYCOSH report analyzes fatality-related citations issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to make its case for stronger enforcement.

It notes, for example, that OSHA inspects less than four percent of construction sites nationally. In New York City, 71 inspectors are expected to monitor all worksites in all industries.

Meanwhile, fines for OSHA violations have not increased in 25 years.

NYCOSH construction report

"Price of Life: 2015 Report on Construction Fatalities in NYC," by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, sees a "disturbing" trend in the city's poorly regulated, unsafe work sites.

Statewide, construction accounts for less than 4 percent of employment but nearly 20 percent of occupational fatalities, the report said.

"There have been nine workers killed in the city this year, and it's only May," Obernauer said.

"We need to talk about how we can improve safety and crack down on criminal contractors and employers, instead of looking the other way or listening to lobbyists who'd prefer to cut corners on safety.

"Innocent workers should not have to die so that we can build our city's infrastructure."

Key Findings

Among the report's key findings:

  • Seventy-one percent of construction accidents with injuries reported to the New York City Buildings Department between 2008 and 2013 were related to work at heights.
  • The average OSHA penalty for fatal height-related construction accidents in New York in 2012 was $7,620.
  • About 30 percent of OSHA penalties have never been paid.
  • Just 84 OSHA cases have been criminally prosecuted in 35 years. The report notes that the maximum charge is a misdemeanor, "so it is hardly worth prosecutors' time to pursue."

Nationally, OSHA inspects less than 4 percent of construction sites, the report found.

  • Eighty percent of roofing and siding contractor inspections, and two-thirds of construction inspections, between 2010 and 2012 resulted in violations.
  • In 2012, 79 percent of fatal construction falls in New York occurred at nonunion sites.
  • In 2012, Latinos accounted for 25 percent of New York's construction workers and 38 percent of its construction deaths.

Recommendations for Reform

The report recommends:

  • Increasing OSHA's inspectors and inspections;
  • Increasing OSHA penalties, which have not changed sinece 1970;
  • Prosecuting repeat and willful violators under criminal statutes and earmarking those fines for a fund that would increase inspections;
  • Adding OSHA staff who can communicate in languages most commonly spoken by Limited English Proficiency workers.

While criminal prosecution is possible under the OSH Act, it is seldom pursued, the report notes. It cites the case of one contractor whose employee was buried alive in a collapsed trench. The employer was allowed to serve his jail time from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on a series of Saturdays so as not to interrupt his business.

NYCOSH report

The average OSHA penalty for fatal height-related construction accidents in New York in 2012 was $7,620, the report said. OSHA penalties have not been increased since 1990.

Congress has not increased OSHA penalties since 1990, and "even then, penalties were so low that they were not a credible deterrent to employers cutting safety corners," the report said.

"Running a business with only a slight chance of facing an OSHA inspection not only undermines OSHA's credibility as an enforcer of worker safety requirements, but it denies public and private builders important information about the safety records of contractors they are considering hiring."

Targeting 'Bad Actors'

Calls for change are also coming from New York's City Council. Last week, the Council put pressure on the Buildings Department "to aggressively pursue 'bad actor' contractors," the Daily News reported.

Many critics blame the current wave of accidents on the city's frenzied building boom. The number of accidents has increased by 80 percent since 2011, officials said.

JumaaneWilliams RickChandler
Official photos

“People who are doing bad things are not being stopped,” New York City Council Housing & Building Committee Chairman Jumaane Williams (left) said  last week. Buildings Commissioner Chairman Rick Chandler (right) said the increasing injury rates stemmed from better reporting and bigger projects.

“People who are doing bad things are not being stopped,” said Housing & Building Committee Chairman Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn), the newspaper reported. “We want to make sure we’re doing a lot more of connecting the dots.”

Council members said the Building Department was lax in tracking repeat-offender contractors.

Buildings Commissioner Rick Chandler countered that the greater injury rates reflected better reporting and an increase in mega-projects.

'Building One City'

For its part, the Building Department has released a reorganization plan that the agency says will transform its operations and make them transparent.

Building One City, released Thursday (May 14), follows Mayor Bill de Blasio's call in January for "fundamental reform at the Department of Buildings."

The agency is tasked with enforcing construction and zoning codes on over one million buildings and construction sites across the city. The department issued more than 140,000 building permits in 2014.

The document, billed as a "vision of change," pledges to target resources on "the highest risk and highest priority work."




Tagged categories: Accidents; Construction; Enforcement; Fall protection; Fatalities; Good Technical Practice; North America; OSHA

Comment from Mike McCloud, (5/18/2015, 7:27 AM)

What is the percentage of work that is union in NY? Is it less than 21%?

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