Alarming Rise in Construction Site Injuries and Deaths in New York

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Public Health Watchdog Breaking News
Public Health Watchdog Breaking News

Construction injuries across New York State are up 40 percent, according to a January 2017 report from the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health (NYCOSH). When injuries as well as deaths are factored in, construction accidents in New York State have skyrocketed from 128 in 2011 to more than 400 in 2015. At the same time, the number of safety inspections has steadily dropped.

In New York City, which is experiencing a construction boom, work-related deaths spiked, from 17 deaths in 2011 to 25 job-site deaths in 2015.

The NYCOSH report says New York City does not accurately count construction fatalities. The New York City Department of Buildings “does not investigate and officially record construction deaths that do not threaten public safety, meaning that many construction fatalities go uncounted by the City agency.” In 2015, the Department of Buildings investigated 11 construction deaths, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported 17 deaths.

The experienced personal-injury attorneys at Parker Waichman can answer questions about construction accidents and construction workers’ rights.

In 2011, OSHA investigators conducted nearly 3,000 inspections but conducted just over 1,900 in 2015, according to the NYCOSH report. The reports attributes the drop in safety inspections to staff reductions. In 2012, New York State had more than 80 inspectors but now there are only about 66 active inspectors.

After 25 years of fines remaining stagnant, in 2016 OSHA increased penalties for employers who violate safety and health laws. The increase, put into effect on August 1, 2016, is intended to deter contractors from breaking the law. Increasing fines has been an ongoing recommendation made in NYCOSH’s annual reports on construction fatalities.

Falls are the Most Common Construction-Site Accidents

Falls are the most common accidents at construction sites and falls account for nearly 60 percent of all construction-related injuries and deaths in New York, a rate far above the national average of 36 percent.

Many fatal falls are preventable, NYCOSH says, if construction companies follow OSHA regulations for proper construction of scaffolding and proper use of personal protective equipment like harnesses. “[T]he failure of construction employers to take mandated fall prevention measures results in preventable worker fatalities.”

Elevator construction is also hazardous. OSHA records indicate that five out the 31 construction fatalities investigated in 2015 were elevator-related. Three of the deaths involved a fall down an elevator shaft; two deaths were the result of workers being crushed by elevators. Workers involved in elevator construction regularly describe dangerous working conditions and many say they fear for their lives on the construction site.

In addition to falls and elevator construction accidents, construction workers are frequently injured by falling objects, fires and explosions, and in crane accidents and lifting equipment failures.

NYCOSH examined records of thousands of OSHA inspections. The NYCOSH team found that about 70 percent of OSHA inspections resulted in safety violations and citations. The data suggest that injuries most often occur on sites with poor oversight, and in work zones that have few safety measures in place.

Most construction site injuries are preventable through a combination of proper safety equipment and procedures. But the report says proper precautions are often ignored, resulting in injuries, deaths, and economic losses for workers and their families. In 2014 and 2015, the majority of fatalities occurred in non-union work zones (80% in 2014; 74% in 2015). Of the contractors OSHA has cited multiple times, 93 percent are non-union contractors. Non-union job sites have twice as many violations as their union counterparts. Experts say the current pace of construction in New York City puts pressure on contractors to fill slots, even if the workers lack appropriate skills and training.

Improved Safety Policies and Enforcement Needed

Safety advocates note that many construction companies and contractors have records that reflect appropriate caution in their safety policies. Workers are required to wear protective gear at all times. But not all construction sites adhere to required safety policies. Some construction companies lobbied against a package of 19 construction safety bills that were brought to the City Council, despite overwhelming support from trade unions.

The NYCOSH report stresses that education and training and important elements in construction site safety. NYCOSH recommends that all New York City constructions workers should be required to complete OSHA 10, the agency’s 10-hour construction safety training program, or its equivalent. OSHA 10 provides training on the most common hazards construction workers face on the job. New York City currently requires OSHA 10 training for workers on buildings 10 stories or higher or with footprints greater than 100,000 square feet. NYCOSH says this training should be mandatory for workers on all construction projects.

In addition, NYCOSH recommends apprenticeship programs. Government-recognized apprenticeship programs have rigorous training requirements of hundreds or even thousands of hours. Apprenticeship programs combine on-the-job learning with technical instruction. Workers who complete an apprenticeship receive industry-recognized certification.

NYCOSH says monitoring and enforcement should be expanded and New York’s Scaffold Safety Law should be retained. The scaffold law holds building site owners and employers fully liable for worker injuries and deaths resulting from unsafe conditions at worksites with scaffolds.

NYCOSH urges passages of the Construction Insurance Transparency Act and the Elevator Safety Act. The insurance transparency act requires public disclosure of information about premium determinations and financial solvency. The Elevator Safety Act would ensure that elevator-related work is done safely. All elevator-related work—from design and construction through maintenance and repair—would have to be done by licensed workers.

The report urges expanded monitoring and enforcement, with the New York City Department of Buildings investigating and analyzing all construction fatalities. The department should work with OSHA and/or the Bureau of Labor Statistics to gather details on cause of death and safety issues at the site to facilitate the development of effective health and safety policy. New York City should require companies filing for construction permits to submit OSHA violation histories. NYCOSH recommends expanded criminal prosecutions statewide to hold contractors accountable, when their failure to protect workers rises to the level of a criminal offense.

Legal Help for Construction-Site Injuries

The personal injury attorneys at Parker Waichman LLP offer free, no-obligation case evaluations of cases involving construction-site accidents. For more information, fill out the online contact form or call 1-800-YOURLAWYER (1-800-968-7529).