NYC, state construction industry far more dangerous than rest of nation: NYCOSH report

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The construction industry in both New York City and New York State continues to be far more dangerous than the rest of the country, despite widespread COVID-19 work stoppages in 2020, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) says in its annual construction fatality report released on feb. 10.

The report: Deadly Skyline: An Annual Report on Construction Fatalities in New York State, analyzed newly available data from 2020, NYCOSH said in a statement.

Across New York State overall, the construction fatality rate increased from 10.2 per 100,000 workers to 11.1, or a 9% increase. In 2020, construction worker deaths accounted for 24% of all worker deaths in New York State, while nationally they comprised 21% of all worker deaths.

In New York City, the construction fatality rate decreased for the first time after three years of consistent increases, yet remains above the national average, accounting for 22% of worker fatalities. While more long-term data are needed to determine the causes behind this decrease, the construction slowdown caused by the pandemic likely played a role.

The report also found that, in 2020, OSHA conducted the lowest number of inspections in the agency’s history. This is also likely a result of the construction shutdown, but more analysis is needed to determine how this historic drop in oversight will set back efforts to safeguard worksites in subsequent years.

Latinx construction workers continue to be disproportionately likely to die on the job in New York State. In 2020, Latino workers made up 18% of worker fatalities while they comprised only 10% of the state population.

The report also found that non-union job sites remain especially dangerous for workers, with 79% of worker deaths taking place on non-union worksites.

“New York should be a national leader in worker safety, but the data reveal that we continue to lead the nation in construction worker fatalities, despite COVID-19 shutdowns. Lawmakers must protect and expand safety regulations to hold negligent contractors and companies accountable when they endanger workers. While we are fortunate to have many strong protections on the books – such as the scaffold safety law – we still need stiffer consequences, and I urge lawmakers to act,” NYCOSH executive director Charlene Obernauer said in the statement.

“This report makes clear that much more must be done to ensure that the safety of workers remains the number one priority on all construction sites across New York,” said Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York. “The rate of construction fatalities in New York is unacceptable, and it’s critical that decision makers continue to advance measures that bring the operation of all construction sites in line with the safety standards and protocols required at union construction sites. I urge lawmakers to continue to defend the state’s scaffold safety law, increase oversight and enact stiffer penalties against bad actors.”

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“It is unconscionable that corrupt contractors and irresponsible companies profit at the expense of immigrant workers’ safety,” said Diana Moreno, Interim Executive Director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE). “Latinx and non-union workers must be able to make a living while staying alive. Community organizations like NICE train and educate workers to stay safe, but without stronger regulations, our efforts are not enough. We need the support and leadership of New York lawmakers to end this epidemic of fatalities in construction.”

Other key findings include:

  • OSHA construction fines for fatality cases increased for the 5th year in a row.
  • OSHA issued fewer press releases in 2021.
  • Contractors’ OSHA violations coincide with construction worker fatalities, but violations do not prevent contractors from receiving government subsidies.

To address rising construction fatalities across New York State, NYCOSH recommends the following measures in the report:

  • Require construction training and certification for New York State’s construction workers
  • Preserve New York’s Scaffold Safety Law
  • Pass Carlos’ Law to increase penalties against criminal contractors
  • Expand criminal prosecutions of contractors statewide
  • Use existing city power to suspend or revoke licenses and construction permits for criminal contractors
  • Double OSHA’s budget
  • OSHA must issue a permanent infectious disease standard for all workers, including its own
  • Increase funding to the New York City Department of Buildings
  • Mandate subsidy procurement reform and responsible contracting in New York State and New York City
  • Protect Latino and immigrant workers proactively

The construction fatality data do not include the many construction workers that perished due to on-the-job exposure to COVID or other occupational illnesses, NYCOHS said.

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