Trying To Make It Safer To Do A Dangerous Job

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The recent construction site accident at the Trump Soho residential hotel – in which worker Yurly Vanchytskyy fell more than 40 stories to his death – has brought fresh attention to a longstanding problem. That is, the matter of safety, of both workers and the public, at development sites and within the city’s aging housing stock.

The Jan. 14 death follows a series of other construction accidents in 2007, such as the retaining wall that crumbled at an Upper West Side site in July, the fire at Deutsche Bank in lower Manhattan in August, and, in December, the window washer who fell to his death on the Upper East Side crane and the crane that snapped at the Morgan Stanley site in lower Manhattan, nearly killing an architect working inside a trailer. In light of these incidents, observers both within and without the construction industry are refocusing attention on how to improve construction site safety citywide.

There’s no question that construction and related fields are perilous jobs. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data on work fatalities, construction deaths in New York City more than doubled from 2005 to 2006, from 20 to 43. (Data for 2007 is not yet available.) Over that period, New York City also had a higher percentage of construction deaths than the U.S. overall, according to BLS: “the construction sector accounted for 43 percent of all fatalities; nationally, construction also led other sectors … accounting for 21 percent of all job-related fatal injuries.” The city’s Department of Buildings (DOB), however, reported that between Jan. 1, 2007 and Oct. 31, 2007, construction-related fatalities dropped 43 percent from the same period in 2006, from 14 to 8, and injuries stayed constant – but accidents on high-rise sites increased from 23 to 42.

Tallies aside, the often dramatic incidents have led an array of elected officials, activists and leaders in the industry itself to take steps to improve construction worker safety and stem illegal activity at worksites that may contribute to the injury and death toll. Efforts include re-introducing state legislation that would make DOB more answerable to communities; creating a more efficient and streamlined way for DOB to implement regulations; lobbying for more frequent and thorough enforcement measures; and pushing for increased funding for building and safety inspectors.

Louis Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers’ Association – which held an emergency summit Jan. 23 on concrete-pouring procedures after the Trump death – says he’d like to see something started that’s similar to the police department’s COMPSTAT program where “you target the resources where the problem is.”

“There’s a different type of developer … a new cadre of developers taking advantage of the New York market,” Coletti said. “It’s a very different phenomenon than anything we’ve dealt with before.”

“The only way it’s [going to improve] is more money set aside for safety people and building inspectors,” agreed Sal Zarzana, president and business manager of Carpenters Local Union 926.

Other ideas on the table include creating voluntary contracts between developers and community boards, increasing workers’ safety training and overcoming the language barrier that becomes an obstacle for numerous laborers – as many construction workers, and victims of recent accidents, are Spanish-speaking immigrants.

Julissa Bisono, a worker organizer for the worker advocacy group Make the Road By Walking, says she sees frequent cases of worker exploitation. Just about every worker she counsels has been injured on a job site, Bisono said. “They don’t train me,” is a frequent complaint, she said, “and Health and Safety only make a quick run-down.”

“There’s no substitute for training, training and more training,” said Jeff Zogg, executive director of the General Building Contractors of New York State. And, he said, “owners need to have greater awareness how risky and dangerous this business is. …Patience can be a virtue.” At the same time, Zogg warned, too many rules and regulations “can overburden those [already] complying, causing delays …there’s a very fine line.”

A report issued by the Fiscal Policy Institute last month said the construction industry employs more than 200,000 workers in New York City, almost a quarter of whom work in the illegal “underground” construction industry. Not only does this lead to a half-billion-dollar annual financial loss because of unpaid payroll taxes and workers compensation premiums, according to the report, but it correlates with dangerous practices. Data from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) “indicate a strong correlation between construction fatalities and the characteristics of the underground economy: half of the deaths occurred among workers at very small construction companies, three-fourths of the workers involved worked for non-union companies, and failure to provide safety training was cited in over half of the cases.”

The city’s DOB, which regulates construction in the five boroughs, has a number of initiatives underway to promote safety, says press secretary Kate Lindquist. The DOB has an excavations inspection team, a professional certification review and audits team and a stop work order patrol in operation. As of this month, a new “construction superintendent rule” went into effect requiring low-rise buildings to have a registered construction superintendent in order to get a building permit, and this year “general contractor registration” will go into effect requiring contractors building one-, two- or three-family homes to register with the DOB, giving more teeth to enforcement of low-rise sites, Lindquist said.

Construction of low-rise buildings – 14 stories and under – is up 31 percent over last year, and “construction incidents” on such buildings are up 2 percent, from 288 in 2006 to 294 in 2007, she said.

But “the regulation framework within New York City is geared toward high-rise construction,” maintains Coletti of the building trades association. He also thinks DOB is not proactive enough. “DOB has always been reactive,” he said, voicing a sentiment echoed repeatedly by those interviewed. Until recently, “it was the Wild West show out there. They need more resources.”

Industry insiders and residents have been expressing concern about the pace at which buildings are going up. Officials need to “take a close look at the accelerated schedules—are they unsafe job conditions?” Coletti asked. Soho residents had been complaining about how quickly the top floors of the Trump building were built – concrete that wasn’t given enough time to dry is suspected as the cause of the structural failure there – and given that the building faced strong opposition in the neighborhood from the get-go, some wonder whether the contractor was rushing to complete the building before legal challenges to the controversial building were heard.

Cracking down on violators has proven effective. With building in NYC going gangbusters, scaffold-related accidents jumped high enough that the city felt it had to take action. In 2006, Mayor Bloomberg’s “Suspended Scaffold Worker Safety Task Force” was created; Coletti served as chair. Their investigations often found contractors not employing licensed master riggers, as the law requires – and not suffering penalties. The legislation resulting from the task force, said Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, had a “salutary effect” on safety, proving “you can have an impact.” In April, Mayor Bloomberg signed several scaffolding-related laws that increase penalties, and DOB has reported an 83 percent decrease in scaffolding-related fatalities since then.

Other construction safety efforts underway include:

• State Assemblyman James Brennan, a Brooklyn Democrat, held hearings into problems with the DOB in 2006 and introduced several reform-minded bills last year. Three passed the legislature, with Gov. Spitzer vetoing legislation mandating re-inspection every 60 days for hazardous violations, based on the city’s recommendation that it would be too costly an undertaking. Brennan plans to redraft and resubmit the bill.

Brennan said he’ll again push for a “DOB Community Accountability Act” where the agency will have to report to community boards and the borough presidents “accidents, the investigation of the accidents’ circumstances, and all violations issued.” But the biggest battle he anticipates will be the one over mandating the licensing of general contractors.

• Since last year, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has been working on a “Task Force on Responsible Contracting,” a joint effort with local communities and unions. “I’ve been working to bring community and labor leaders to the same table so that we can forge a strong consensus behind development that is safe for workers and neighbors, provides high-quality jobs, and meets community needs,” Stringer said in an e-mail. The group had intended to approach developers to voluntarily agree on certain policies, but by working through the community boards they broadened their scope, developing a questionnaire and checklist to include issues such as employment opportunities, context, environmental sustainability and impact on infrastructure.

• The city’s building codes will be updated this summer, for the first time since 1968. The DOB’s website lists new laws modernizing building, fuel gas, mechanical and some fire safety codes, to name a few. There will be a three-year phasing-in cycle.

• City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced a hearing on construction site safety for next Monday, Feb. 4 to “examine, among other topics, if we need to enhance worker training, whether city regulations around high rises are sufficient, if we have a large enough workforce to keep pace with development demands and whether the timeframe for the development of high rises is appropriate.”

Still, recent published reports deepen questions about DOB. Christopher Santulli, a top agency commissioner who is responsible for developer compliance, is working without a current engineering license, in violation of the law, the New York Post reported last week. And according to a Daily News report, DOB Commissioner Patricia Lancaster allegedly signed secret agreements to not reveal problems with a controversial architect, did several other high-ranking officials – a practice that’s now banned.

Since the Trump accident, City Councilman Tony Avella, a Queens Democrat who is running for mayor, called for Lancaster’s resignation. “DOB is incompetent, it’s the only way to change the agency … Never in 25 years of [community service] have I seen so many near accidents and terrible safety measures.” Avella said that in his district alone “there are 300 to 400 complaints” registered with the agency.

Both Mayor Bloomberg and Speaker Quinn, however, have subsequently expressed their support for Lancaster, an architect whom Bloomberg appointed in 2002 with the express mission of reforming the agency.

– Jillian Jonas