The band that stood waiting on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral struck its first booming notes at 2:45 sharp on a sunny April afternoon, and then led a procession of nearly 1,000 people. The occasion was International Workers Memorial Day, and construction workers from all over New York had come together to honor members of their community who were killed on work sites over the last year.
“Hard hats on. If you have them, wear them,” repeated Santos Rodriguez, as he ushered the guests through the cathedral’s big bronze doors.
Construction workers and city officials, who had gathered on the sidewalk outside of the cathedral, marched through the door, following family members of the 18 co-workers who lost their lives in the last year. During the service, all 18 names were called out, accompanied by the ringing of the bell.
Sanford Lemoine, from Local 46, held his union’s banner in one hand and his hard hat in another. When asked if he had lost any members of his team in the last year, Lemoine said, “No one this year. Thank God. But we’re here for our non-union brothers.”
But he understood the pain. Extending his hard hat, Lemoine pointed to the red and blue stickers that bore the names of two young men, Anthony Paino (28) and Michael Simermeyer (30)—co-workers he lost on work sites in 2009 and 2013. Underneath the names were two words: My Brother.
Construction is a dangerous business, and the numbers alone can tell you why. And now it is getting more dangerous .
Accidents in the construction industry increased 24 percent in 2014 compared to the previous year, while injuries increased 21 percent. Fatalities in the work place, too, spiked from three in 2013 to eight in 2014.
And these numbers are showing no signs of relenting. In 2015, nine fatalities have been registered, according to news reports. Nearly 80 percent of the fatalities were among non-union workers, said Charlene Obernauer, executive director of New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health.
One of the recent fatal accidents occurred on April 24, just four days before the memorial service. On a non-union project on East 44th Street, 40-year-old Trevor Loftus was fatally crushed when a mechanical failure caused a crane to fall on top of him. Kenry Contracting Inc, the company Loftus was associated with, has a history of Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations, including one complaint that was filed in March 2015. “Why are these contractors being allowed to continue?” asked Obernauer. “If contractors have violations they should not be doing work with city dollars and should be suspended from doing business,” she said. When contacted, Kenry Contracting Inc. declined to comment on the issue.
Fatalities do seem to coincide with violations, said Obernauer. In nearly 90 percent of the cases where the cause of death was related to fall from elevation, there was an OSHA violation at the site, according to Obernauer.
Investigations of the 2014 fatalities revealed that the properties where six of the eight fatalities in New York City also had violations issued by the Environmental Control Board regulations. The two other sites were in violation of Department of Buildings regulations, according to DOB records.
The Department of Buildings issues an Environmental Control Board violation when a property does not comply with a part of New York City Construction Codes and/or zoning resolutions, which is essentially a plan that governs the land use and development in the city. The environmental board categorized these violations as Class 1 and 2, which indicates their severity as “Immediately Hazardous” and “Major,” respectively. The penalties for these offenses ranged from $2,400 to $12,000.
Some of the fatalities, however, have involved non-workers that happened to just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In March of this year, 37-year old Trang Thuy Nguyen was hit and killed by a piece of plywood that flew from a construction site in Greenwich Village.
“It’s worrisome not only for the workers, but also the members of the public who have been injured and killed due to safety violations. It’s a concern for everyday New Yorkers,” added Obernauer.
The rising number of injuries and fatalities indicate a critical need for proper regulations—and construction workers are worried.
“Of course it’s a concern,” said Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council. “One of the things we do know is that most of the fatalities are on non-union projects. So we don’t only advocate for safe work sites for our members, but we try to bring to light what non-union workers are faced with on a daily basis without proper safety training, without apprenticeship programs, and without the proper safety requirements being met on projects.” said LaBarbera. “It’s really a problem.”
Nearly 80 percent of the fatalities in the last year involved non-union workers, according to NYCOSH. Typically, non-union workers are less experienced and haven’t undergone the necessary training. Since they are less expensive, contractors hire them to cut costs and often times fail to provide them the necessary safety equipment, say construction worker advocates. “These shortcuts equal injury on the job and results in fatalities,” said Obernauer.
More than 50 percent of the workforce in the non-union sector is comprised of non-English speaking immigrants, said LaBarbera, “The non- union contractors really exploit these workers terribly.”
Contractors, for their part, complain about rising insurance premiums.
“We don’t deny the premiums have gone up, like, 200 percent,” said LaBarbera. The Buildings Trade Union is lobbying to pass the Sunshine Bill, which calls for insurance companies to open their books and records and become transparent about how they determine their rates. “What we’re saying is that we’re willing to have a discussion, but before that, we need to have some transparency as far as the insurance companies are concerned,” said LaBarbera.
Construction workers rely on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to ensure safety conditions on work sites. According to a report released by NYCOSH, there are approximately 75 OSHA health and safety inspectors in New York. This number is by no means adequate to meet the demands of the job, said Obernauer. “OSHA is always underfunded. It’s an inevitability, because it’s not a federal priority.”
Another factor is the low penalty imposed on contractors. The maximum fine for willful violation imposed by OSHA is $70,000. An average OSHA citation for fatality is as low as $12,000 or $13,000. “Contractors are getting fined pennies on the dollars. And there are no criminal negligence charges,” said Obernauer. “Why are we fining these contractors so little when they’re doing so much damage to workers and their families?”
Penalties for OSH Act violations were raised only once in the last 40 years—in 1990—despite inflation. “Over the years, the cost of living has increased, cost of construction has increased, and the cost of houses has increased, but the cost of life of construction workers has not increased,” said Obernauer.
Construction fatalities are witnessing a slow but steady rise since 2009—except for in 2013, which saw a brief decline. Construction is on the rise as well. “There is a correlation in increase of new building construction and accidents,” said Alex Schnell, Department of Buildings spokesperson. The rising numbers have affected changes in NYC’s construction code. Each time the Construction Code is revised, a portion of Chapter 33, which outlines safeguarding procedures for sites, is updated to create new regulations based in part on accident trends and other incidents. “The 2008 Construction Code had significant safeguarding enhancements, and the 2014 Construction Code expanded on these safeguarding changes,” said Schnell. The continued upward trend may well indicate the need for further enhancement.
Meanwhile as the memorial service drew to a close, Rev. Brian Jordan made a suggestion that the city should erect bronze statues of construction workers in commemoration. “After all, they’re the ones who build our churches, schools and synagogues,” he echoed. Everyone in attendance applauded this proposal.
But first, they are more likely to want a safe working environment so their names won’t be among the ones read at next year’s memorial.