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NYC Site Safety Backlog Questioned

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

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The president of a safety-management company in New York City says a lack of site safety managers is slowing construction in that city—and he’s pointing the finger at the city’s Department of Buildings and its certification process.

It comes on the heels of a call from a city council member for the department to change its data collection practices regarding jobsite safety, to help clarify whether union jobsites have a substantially different safety record than nonunion sites.

Safety Manager Bottleneck

Matt Caruso, president of CR Safety, penned an op-ed in Crain’s New York Business on Monday (Oct. 17), asserting that New York’s construction boom has been subject to a bottleneck, with site safety managers at the heart of it.

Hudson Yards redevelopment site
By Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One site-safety expert asserts that New York’s construction boom has been subject to a bottleneck, with site safety managers at the heart of it.

According to the DOB, a certified site safety manager is required to oversee safety on New York City sites where buildings 15 stories or higher are under construction. Certified site safety managers are subject to the strictest qualifications of the three DOB site-safety certifications.

“Safety-compliance firms are working overtime to train qualified individuals,” Caruso writes. “But managers must be certified by the Department of Buildings—which can take as long as six months.”

It’s an issue that’s led to projects being put on hold because a site safety manager can’t be found, Caruso says. It also prevents potential enhancements to current site safety regulations: Sites anywhere from 15 stories up all require a single site safety manager, Caruso notes.

Background Checks

The delay, Caruso says, comes largely from the DOB’s background check process, which can be a lengthy ordeal when the subject has worked for a number of companies over the years, and each must be contacted for verification.

Harco Construction site
Manhattan District Attorney's Office

Some recent jobsite fatalities have been high-profile, like the death of 22-year old Carlos Moncayo in a trench collapse on a Harco Construction site.

A solution he suggests: Issue a temporary, contingent permit after an individual passes the site safety manager test, allowing them to perform site safety manager duties for a given period, after which they will lose the permit if they haven’t supplied the required background information or their information hasn’t checked out.

He also suggests allowing site safety coordinators—those qualified to oversee safety on construction sites for buildings 9-14 stories—to fill in for site safety managers on some larger sites.

A DOB spokesperson told D+D News that "requirements for site safety managers and coordinators are provided by law in the NYC Construction and Administrative Codes."

Union Status Information

At the same time, the DOB is under fire from at least one member of city council, who is calling for the department to record the union status of jobsites where accidents occur, to help determine whether, as union advocates often suggest, union sites are safer.

Councilor Jumaane Williams, chair of city council’s Committee on Housing and Buildings, has asked that the DOB record and release the union status of all jobsites where accidents, injuries or fatalities are recorded, according to the New York Daily News.

Nonunion sites have become much more common in recent years, now accounting for at least 40 percent of construction sites in New York City, according to reports.

Fatalities on the Rise

Accidents and fatalities have also risen with the rash of new construction going on in the city; in 2015, the DOB recorded 12 worksite deaths in New York City, up from eight the year before. Some cases have been high-profile, like the death of 22-year old Carlos Moncayo in a trench collapse on a nonunion Harco Construction site.

While union advocates often portray union sites as safer, New York City records don’t indicate whether a site that’s had an accident is union or not, making it hard to determine whether that claim holds water.

“Tracking it may actually be helpful in finding out what’s actually going on,” Williams told the Daily News.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration does record union status as part of its documentation of citations and inspections.

Site inspection
© / Richard Sharp

“Safety-compliance firms are working overtime to train qualified individuals,” CR Safety president Matt Caruso writes. “But managers must be certified by the Department of Buildings—which can take as long as six months.”

In responsed to Williams' call, a DOB spokesman says the department doesn't “tolerate contractors who cut corners and recklessly increase the risks of construction work.

The spokesman said the DOB had "quadrupled the penalties for the most frequent safety lapses, swept contractors with poor safety records at projects of less than 10 stories–where nearly three quarters of accidents occurred last year–and are greatly increasing oversight at these sites.

"Our investigations routinely reveal that accidents could have been prevented if contractors simply followed existing safety rules. [The department is] determined to change the mindset that safety violations are simply the cost of doing business.”

A department spokesperson noted that while accidents are on the rise, construction is growing even more quickly. Construction was up 300 percent from 2009 to 2015, the department says, but accidents were only up about 98 percent in that same time.

The department also noted that it has logged 252 accidents thus far this year, putting the city on pace for a decrease in construction accidents in 2016, in comparison with last year's 433.

Recordkeeping Questioned

Last month, Crain’s published an article questioning the DOB’s recording of jobsite fatalities; the department’s numbers reflect only those on-the-job deaths related to building code violations, and not those related to equipment issues, environmental stresses or other causes. OSHA fatality records, by contrast, include any jobsite death. The mayor's office at the time chalked the discrepancy up to a difference in bookkeeping.


Tagged categories: Commercial Construction; Construction; Contractors; Good Technical Practice; Government; Health and safety; North America; Safety; Unions

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