With Injuries on the Rise, A Focus on Workplace Safety

Construction worker paints without wearing harness.

Smoke billows out of shattered windows, bodies pile up on the sidewalk, as the fire rages. All on-screen, fortunately.

On a Saturday at the New York Safety and Training Center in the Bronx, construction workers were watching a documentary about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, one of the largest industrial disasters in U.S. history, back in 1911.

Here in 2019, construction remains the most lethal industry in New York. The construction workers were at the center on February 2nd to fulfill New York City’s new safety training requirements under Local Law 196. The law was approved by City Council in October 2017, and requires workers on specified construction sites to receive 40 hours of training by June 2019. The training curriculum is provided by Occupational Safety and Training Administration (OSHA), the federal agency responsible for ensuring the health and safety of America’s workers.

Changes to the safety training regulations in New York City came in response to the high rate of construction-related fatalities and injuries over the past ten years. Fatalities increased, for example, from 17 in 2011 to 25 in 2015.  Construction-related injuries have also increased. According to the Department of Buildings, 761 injuries were reported in 2017, a 13 percent increase from the 671 injuries reported in 2016.

The New York Safety and Training Center is a private company that partners with nonprofit organizations like C.E.O., which helps find employment for people returning from prison. The center is one the few places offering the required course, called OSHA-30, in-person. Established by Mike O’Donnell, a U.S. Navy veteran, almost five years ago, the center also offers OSHA-30 classes at a below-market price—$399. Online classes can cost as much as $600, though some are lower. The training center offers a low price point,O’Donnell says, “to be able to serve our community and provide training to at-risk and underserved populations.”

The OSHA-30 training is comprehensive. The course first covers OSHA, its role and responsibility, and OSHA’s fatality report, which provides data on work-related fatalities over the past year. The instruction then goes over health hazards of the job and the “fatal four”—falls, electrocution, “struck-by,” and “caught-in-between”—the most common ways workers die. The second half of the course covers protective measures, including the right equipment and gear, as well as workers’ rights under OSHA law to a workplace free of known health and safety hazards.

At the end of the Factory Fire video, the instructor, Ana Lucas, turns to the class: “So, what went wrong?” she asks. “No fire escapes,” says Mike Gitney, an Irishman who lost a ring-finger in a saw accident. “Smoking cigarettes on site,” says, Jason Dees, a 33-year old man from the Bronx.  On that day in the garment factory fire, 123 workers ended up dying.

“And do you think the deaths of these girls were preventable, gentlemen?” Ana asks. “You bet they were.” Unlike the garment workers in 1911, the workers in this room are all men. But the 1911 victims, many of them Italian and Jewish, were also mostly immigrants, similar to many of the construction workers in the room, who came from the Dominican Republic, China, Jamaica, Ireland, and Mali. New York Safety and Training also provides the OSHA-30 class in Spanish to serve the large Hispanic population in the industry.

Ibrahim Janka, a student in the OSHA-30 class, is from Mali and has been working as a scaffolding builder in New York for the past 12 years. “Some bosses, they don’t like to spend money and they want to finish quickly,”  he said. Getting a construction site up to code—procedures to minimize the risk of accidents and fire—can take up to a day, he explains, for a job that will may only take a few hours. So some supervisors choose not to. “They don’t care. They want to be fast-fast. And if you ask the boss about it, they will be angry.” 

Ibrahim Janak, from Mali, has been a construction worker in New York for 12 years. (Lizzie Mulvey/NYCityLens)

On Intervale Avenue in the Bronx, Ibrahim points out two men painting a building exterior on a suspended platform eight stories up. A thick rope extending vertically across the facade is attached to the back of one man’s harness. The other man works without fall protection.

“You see?” Ibrahim says. “The job areas are very dangerous.” He says later that he would like to leave the construction industry and get back into the textile business in Mali.

Lamar Chin, originally from Jamaica, is starting a job as an electrician next week. When asked about the workplace risks, he says, “People take the risks because they want to keep providing for their family.” With the additional training from the OSHA-30 class, though, he says he feels more prepared. “We know the safety guidelines and we know we can call OSHA if there are problems.” OSHA provides workers a number to call if they see safety violations on site.

Lamar Chin is starting a new construction job next week. (Lizzie Mulvey/NYCityLens)

German Valencia, 27 years old, and Jason Dees, 33 years old, were both born and raised in the Bronx. “I see it as work,” says Jason. “I don’t think about the hazards.” German was just released from a prison upstate last week. This is the first time he will hold a job in three and a half years. He says he is glad he took the class because he never really thought about the risks in this line of work.

German Valencia and Jason Dees, both from the Bronx, at the New York Safety and Training Center. (Lizzie Mulvey/NYCityLens)

The increasing number of accidents on construction sites points to the need for increased awareness about occupational hazards and protection measures. Ana, who has worked in construction for 25 years, explains to the class that companies often choose the cheapest subcontractors: “Lowest bidder, my friends.” She says it is those contractors who are most likely to cut corners when it comes to safety.

She recommends to the students that they go on the OSHA website and look up a contractor before taking a job. “If they have five violations for the same thing? You should be careful.”