It’s an obvious fact that construction work is naturally a dangerous profession to be in. Since the last century, construction has been linked with extreme heights such as the iconic ‘Lunch atop a Skyscraper’ photograph or handling heavy machinery or playing tag with electricity – all forms of labor leading to possible seconds away from serious injury or death. But safety tools, techniques, and methods over time, have gotten better. Unfortunately, recently-published studies show that construction work in New York City is deadlier than ever for labor workers. This is relatively concerning, be it that construction work has improved safety in all other demographics. How can that be?
Many modern historians argue that since the 2008 financial crisis, uneducated workers have disproportionately taken jobs in the most dangerous segments of the construction industry, naturally resulting in higher fatality and accident rates. This is true to certain extents in some cities and urban areas across the U.S., but in New York City, the theory doesn’t really add up. The number of construction workers in line with the Tri-State’s population and the number of projects in session doesn’t explain the unusual higher fatality rates.
A theory that seems a bit more pragmatic is that a vast portion of workers in the construction industry are undocumented employees. As a result, they tend to go to non-union jobs with smaller contractors who are more likely to bend safety rules. In New York, several recent studies have shown that federal inspections uncover violations by small contractors more often than by large, unionized employers. Workers employed by non-union companies do suffer over three-quarters of construction accidents in New York. But that’s only when a violation is found. It has also been proven that employers are less likely to be so scrutinized as their larger competitors, according to recent statistics. It is a known fact that OSHA has a shortage of employees and that several hazards to its workers are often overlooked by major inspectors and agencies. According to an AFL-CIO report, the agency’s federal and state offices have fewer than 2,000 inspectors. Which is enough to visit every work zone in the country about once every 125 years.
There’s a flawed, but legal reason for this. Contractors for buildings over 10 stories tall must have their own inspector, which they can get from OSHA or the Department of Buildings. But a structure of less than 10 stories high, however, does ‘not need that much supervision’– even though these types of structures make up almost 95% of work sites in New York City. They are rarely required to have a site safety manager and are unlikely to have received a visit from OSHA or the DOB.
Documented or not, it is not at all surprising why accidents and fatalities for everyday construction workers are on the rise. Their workplaces are more dangerous than ever before because of minimal regulations and little control. While it is a good problem to have for the corporations, jumpstarting projects from left to right because it means more revenue in the days ahead, it’s a major concern for the safety of workers. Not enough money can ignore the lives of workers – or at least it shouldn’t in a first world country.