As an attorney who has represented thousands of injured workers in my career, I have seen first hand some of the serious and deadly injuries that occur in the construction trade. Last year I wrote a blog on the construction trades and discussed a report issued by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) claiming that while the construction industry employs less than 4 percent of New York’s workers, it claims nearly one-fifth of work-related deaths – making it the deadliest industry in the state. The report went on to mention that half of the fatalities were immigrant workers who did not have the protection of unions. Unfortunately, the past year has not seen any major improvements. Injuries at construction sites are up 78 percent this year alone and there have been 16 deaths, mostly immigrant, non-union workers.
The New York Times published an investigation on construction fatalities and noted that an increase in construction and the urgency to finish projects quickly has resulted in shortcuts and inadequate training for workers. Many of these workers have not been properly instructed or lack adequate supervision and are more likely to be injured or killed. The unions maintain that if these job sites were staffed with union trades, there would be a noticeable decrease in injuries and death. Those who are new to the union, called apprentices, work under the supervision of those who are senior and more experienced. While union projects may cost more than non-union jobs, unions point to the increase in accidents and deaths as a direct result of non-union contractors putting profits ahead of safety.
If you work in downtown Manhattan you probably saw or heard about the Rally for Workplace Safety held on December 10. Thousands of construction workers united in a massive protest outside City Hall calling for safer work sites, better working conditions for construction workers, and union protection. So many different trades were on site, all with the purpose of calling attention to unsafe workplace issues. My brother in law, a steam fitter who was present during the rally, noted that there was a procession with 17 coffins that represented the 16 who have already died, and one for the next unlucky worker. Before the protest, a hard hat was placed at the site of where each one of these workers perished.
Fortunately, there are some positive steps being taken. Councilman Rory I. Lancman of Queens has introduced a bill to compel the Buildings Department to report safety violations to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Additionally, Councilman Corey Johnson of Manhattan, on his website noted that he is supporting legislation that would require workers at buildings taller than 10 stories to pass mandatory apprentice training overseen by unions.
While construction trades will never be 100 percent safe, they most definitely can be safer. These protests and legislation are a small but positive step in trying to decrease the likelihood of unnecessary injuries and death.
Catherine M. Stanton is a senior partner in the law firm of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP. She focuses on the area of Workers’ Compensation, having helped thousands of injured workers navigate a highly complex system and obtain all the benefits to which they were entitled. Ms. Stanton has been honored as a New York Super Lawyer, is the past president of the New York Workers’ Compensation Bar Association, the immediate past president of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group, and is an officer in several organizations dedicated to injured workers and their families. She can be reached at 800.692.3717.
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