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NYC Building Inspector: When It Comes To Safety On Union Job Sites vs. Non-Union, “It’s Night & Day”

A growing number of voices are speaking out against non-union's lack of safety adherence

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A promotional image from the New York City Department of Buildings web site. This interview was conducted with the inspector from a NYC firm.

Building inspectors visit the same construction site many times. Over the course of multiple walk-throughs they get to see not only the core elements of the structure but they also witness the way that structure is being made by the builders.


One building inspector for a prominent New York firm who examines new high-rise construction and large remodels, says that he has seen “a very stark difference in terms of safety between union sites and non-union.”


The inspector, whose purview does not include issuing violations for safety practices, wants to remain anonymous because he must maintain good relations with both types of contractors. He says, “the difference between union and non-union work sites is night and day, when it comes to safety.” It’s a difference that starts at the top, according to what he has seen when inspecting jobs in places like Hudson Yards and Rockefeller Center.


“The union guys take safety seriously. They’re certified and trained and they usually keep all the certifications and files verifying this stuff on the job site.” But on non-union sites, he says, “you have no idea who on the crew has been trained in what, or if they have licenses to practice their trade or if those licenses are up to date. There are no records to check. I’ve never seen any.”


And this cavalier attitude permeates the worksite itself, he says. “You can walk around these sites and see people without hard hats, see them working on ledges without a safety harness. You would never see any of that on a union job. The difference is 1000%.”


This inspector believes the stark difference is easily explained. “Developers hire non-union subcontractors because they’re cheaper. And they’re cheaper because the crew is paid less than the union guys and they’re usually provided with less stuff too.” He explained, “for example, some of these companies expect their crew bring their own safety equipment. Things like a harness, a fall-protection lanyard, a face shield, a helmet. These can total hundreds of dollars. Like I said, they’re paid less, and that cost can be unaffordable to a lot of these people.”


And the result of this “bring-your-own-safety-equipment” policy is frightening. “I’ve seen people doing welds without a face shield, guys hanging off a high-rise building without a harness.”


And it’s not just the safety equipment. He says that many safety codes are being violated too. He tells the story of one non-union site where a crewman was working on a high-rise platform that had no safety rail at the edges. The worker was having difficulty removing a wooden plank. When he yanked on the board, it came free and out of his hands and fell 30 stories to the pavement. “The plank fell right at the feet of an OSHA inspector who was entering the site. He shut it down immediately.”


“I’ve got plenty more stories like this one,” he says.


When you consider that 83% of the NYC construction site fatalities that have happened since 2015 have occurred on non-union job sites, that last statement about “plenty more stories” goes without saying.


Because many subcontractors prioritize profit over protecting their employees, construction worker is the deadliest occupation in the city. If we want workers to be treated fairly and safety to be prioritized on these 1,000-ft and taller buildings, we should tell our politicians that New York deserves only union-built buildings.


“You can walk around these sites and see people without hard hats, see them working on ledges without a safety harness. You would never see any of that on a union job. The difference is 1000%.”

The US House of Reps Passed the PRO-Act to Protect Worker Rights

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Here are five provisions

in the PRO Act:


  1. So-called right-to-work laws in more than two dozen states allow workers in union-represented workplaces to opt out of the union, and not pay union dues. At the same time, such workers are still covered under the wage and benefits provisions of the union contract. The PRO Act would allow unions to override such laws and collect dues from those who opt out, in order to cover the cost of collective bargaining and administration of the contract.

  2. Employee interference and influence in union elections would be forbidden. Company-sponsored meetings — with mandatory attendance — are often used to lobby against a union organizing drive. Such meetings would be illegal. Additionally, employees would be able to cast a ballot in union organizing elections at a location away from company property.

  3. Often, even successful union organizing drives fail to result in an agreement on a first contract between labor and management. The PRO Act would remedy that by allowing newly certified unions to seek arbitration and mediation to settle such impasses in negotiations.

  4. The law would prevent an employer from using its employee's immigration status against them when determining the terms of their employment.

  5. It would establish monetary penalties for companies and executives that violate workers' rights. Corporate directors and other officers of the company could also be held liable.

Pictured above are just 15 of the more-than 60 men who have died on non-union construction jobs in New York since 2015. Many of these job sites had been cited for safety violations. According to OSHA, 83% of construction site deaths in New York occur on non-union work sites. 

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