Lapses in the way New York City handles construction safety are nothing new, but they are getting more attention now due to a proposed law that would change the way construction deaths are counted in the city. From July 2014 to July 2015, there were 10 construction related deaths in New York City. Many of the deceased were undocumented foreign workers, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said every accident was preventable.
It would make sense that the city and OSHA would start working together to help investigate these deaths and then try to find ways to prevent them. OSHA states that one of the biggest reasons for these deaths is a lack of supervision by the companies themselves. Workers are also encouraged to cut corners and ignore safety regulations to try and get jobs done faster. Construction safety has been a growing problem in New York City, and the city has shown that it can respond quickly with new city laws that help to alter the habits of construction companies. However, that is not the case with every type of construction death.
Manhattan Construction Site Death Changes The Law
In February 2016, a large crane fell at a Manhattan construction site and one pedestrian was killed. The city’s Department of Buildings maintained that the accident occurred due to a combination of operator error and unfavorable weather conditions. The city said that the winds were gusting beyond the limits that the crane was able to handle, and those winds played a big role in the accident that ended up happening.
In response to that crisis, the city immediately announced that it was going to start enforcing a decades-old law that required construction companies to not use large cranes when the winds gusted over 20 MPH. The city added to the law by saying that every construction company that did business in New York City had to hire a safety manager who would monitor the wind speed and determine when cranes had to be shut down.
Contractors and the unions immediately responded by suing the city in court because the contractors said that the laws had no basis in scientific fact and the contractors were losing money due to the laws. As of January 2017, the court cases are still pending and the laws are still in effect. When the death toll starts to rise due to construction safety breaches in New York City, the Manhattan incident shows that the city is able to respond. But what if that accident happened, but the city never acknowledged it?
How The City Counts Construction Fatal Accidents
In 2015, New York City’s Department of Buildings counted 12 construction deaths throughout the city. Not only is that a rise in the death toll, but it is also five deaths short of the 17 counted by OSHA for the same period. Those 17 OSHA deaths were for the same geographic area that the Department of Buildings covers, yet they appear nowhere on the Department of Buildings’ list of deaths.
The way that the city counts construction deaths is a little complicated. While OSHA counts every death that occurs on a construction site, the Department of Buildings (DOB) only counts accidents it deems dangerous to the public and incidents referred to as construction accidents. For example, if a beam falls and hits a pedestrian, then the DOB would count that accident. If a worker falls through a floor and dies, then that would get counted by the DOB. But if a worker dies because a piece of equipment malfunctions, then that is considered a workplace incident and it is not counted by the DOB.
Crain’s New York wrote an article about the way the city counts deaths on September 12, 2016, and it immediately became clear that not every contractor or union official was aware of how the DOB counted deaths. There was a significant amount of outrage from union officials, and many construction professionals demanded that the DOB changes its methods.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio indicated that the way the DOB counts deaths has been in place for a long time. The mayor saw no need for the city to start getting involved in business the federal government was already taking care of. When pressed further on the issue, de Blasio indicated that he had no desire to put anything in motion that would change the current way the DOB counts construction deaths.
Assembly Member Introduces New Legislation
As a direct result to the furor created by the Crain’s story, New York State Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal decided to take matters into her own hands and introduce legislation that would force the DOB to count and acknowledge all construction deaths in the city. Rosenthal referred to the current system as “typical government bureaucracy” and she insisted that the DOB’s practice was unacceptable.
Mayor de Blasio indicated that he felt the federal government should be allowed to handle its own investigations, but Rosenthal said that the limited number of investigators OSHA has available in New York City means that accidents often don’t get looked over after they occur. The DOB had just hired a group of new investigators in 2016, and Rosenthal feels that those investigators should be working with OSHA to help determine what causes the construction deaths throughout the city.
Why Does This Issue Matter?
The rapid action by the DOB and the city in the wake of the Manhattan crane collapse shows that the city is capable of altering city laws to protect people and construction workers as the death toll rises. But if the city allows itself to ignore certain types of accidents, then how could the city possibly be in the business of protecting everyone.
A vast majority of construction professionals from union leaders to the city’s top private engineers applaud Rosenthal’s new legislation as a step in the right direction. Many union leaders have been demanding changes to the DOB’s practices of counting construction deaths for months, and this law has garnered support from almost every element of the New York City construction industry.
When the city allows itself to ignore certain types of construction accidents, then it does not have to go through the process of collecting data and gathering information. Without that information, the city has no idea what caused the accidents or what can be done to prevent them. If Rosenthal’s initiative passes, then the city will have comprehensive data on every construction death in the city each year, and that information can be used to create city laws and develop new guidelines that will make the construction industry in New York City safer.
Up until a September 2016 Crain’s article about how the DOB counts construction deaths, many in the New York City construction industry did not know that the city was not counting and investigating every death that occurred. After the article was published, the idea that the city was able to not investigate certain deaths not only angered union leaders, but it also got the attention of lawmakers in Albany.
Assemblywoman Rosenthal’s legislation has been introduced and will be discussed and voted on in the coming months. If it passes, New York City’s Department of Buildings will have to start taking into account every construction death that occurs in the city, instead of only dealing with those deaths that meet the DOB’s antiquated criteria.