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Nine Lives Lost is Nine Too Many

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The annual tally of construction workers killed in New York City should be zero, but it will always be too high as long as non-union contractors are allowed to skirt the rules.

The New York Department of Buildings has reported that nine construction workers died on the job in New York City in 2021. Only nine.


The number should be zero.


Zero is how many deaths occur most years in this city on work sites run by unionized contractors. Let there be no doubt, those nine lost lives – fathers, husbands, sons — are a result of the growing number of non-union-managed projects here.


Why does more non-union work equal more on-the-job fatalities? There are a few obvious factors, all of which should drive New Yorkers to demand change.

Zero is how many deaths occur most years in this city on work sites run by unionized contractors.

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To many contractors who skirt fair pay and safety rules to increase their own profits, their workers "seem invisible," according to State Senator Jessica Ramos, their lives expendable as part of a profit/loss accounting. The families they leave behind feel different. --  Getty Images

Safety Costs Contractors Money

The first factor that enables these high death rates on non-union sites is the way that many non-union contractors choose to keep their production costs down.


Consider their staffing choices. Non-union contractors are not required to hire tradespeople who can show proper skills, tool and safety training, as is required by union shops. Therefore most non-union shops hire less experienced people and pay them much lower hourly rates. Often, these unrepresented workers get paid beneath the minimum wage.


This is why those non-union crews are populated by many men and women who do not have the same amount of training, including safety training, as you’ll find on a union crew, which makes non-union work sites much more dangerous.


It’s also well-documented that many non-union contractors willfully disregard the safety requirements established by federal, state and local authorities because those requirements cost them time and money. In 97% of cases where a worker died, their employers had existing safety violations. In incident after incident, a direct line can be drawn from a contractor who has chosen to ignore a safety standard to a construction worker who paid for that violation with their life.

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Sarah Ramirez mourned the passing of Gregory Echavarria, her partner, who was killed on a non-union job site in 2019. She said "These companies cutting corners ... Families are left to suffer and children are being raised without their fathers." See the video of our interview with Ms. Ramirez here.--  The New York Times

The names of the men who died on work sites that had safety violations include Carlos Moncayo, Juan Chonillo, Nelson Salinas, Manuel Colorado, Angel Muñoz, Claudio Patiño, Erik Mendoza, Enrique Ramos, Juan Cerezo. Which points out another sad aspect of this tragedy, most of the fatalities are Hispanic men, victimized by the greed of their employers.


"I think particularly the fact that some Latinx workers are undocumented and are taken advantage of because they are afraid of losing their jobs, they're afraid of potentially being reported for their lack of immigration status," said Charlene Obernauer, executive director of New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH).


From left, Carlos Moncayo, Claudio Patiño, Juan Chonillo, Nelson Salinas, and Angel Muñoz are just a small fraction of the Latino workers who died on non-union job sites in New York City over the past 5 years. Each non-union construction site they worked on had been cited for safety violations before the men died. See more of their stories here.

New York State Senator Jessica Ramos added, "It's painful, personally, because I feel as an Andean woman that our men are so often seen as disposable. These are people who are risking their lives to build luxury apartments. Whose wages are very often stolen. Who ride back on the 7 train covered in asbestos that they were asked to remove with little to no protection.” Senator Ramos chairs the Senate's labor committee.


The Watchers Are Overburdened

Another cause of this unacceptable death rate is the incredible stress that exists on the professionals tasked with supervising this industry — the inspectors.


According to Andrew Rudansky, press secretary for the Department of Buildings (DOB), there are at least 40,000 active construction sites currently operating within city limits, a number that exceeds any in recent memory. To meet the increased demand for oversight, the DOB recently lowered their industry experience standard for new inspectors from five years to two, according to one source within the DOB. Even with that concession, there are only about 800 licensed and working inspectors in the DOB. These men and women have unmanageable caseloads and construction workers are dying as a result.


Nor can the city apparently look to the federal government for help.

Over 40,000 active construction sites and only 800 inspectors opens the door for unscrupulous contractors to get away dangerous practices.

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A recently published NYCOSH report stated that worker deaths on New York City construction sites remain "alarmingly high" at a time when OSHA inspections of work sites has decreased.

According to a recent report from NYCOSH, federal regulators conducted the lowest ever number of inspections in New York State in 2020. And OSHA inspections of construction sites in 2021 was still down nearly 30% from pre-pandemic norms. These oversight reductions come at a time when New York City is seeing more large-scale construction than ever before.


Many experts theorize that the bad-acting non-union contractors see the current reduction of oversight as an opportunity to ramp up their illegal cost-cutting practices.


More Non-Union Projects = More Fatalities

The overwhelming majority of workplace deaths occur on sites where workers are not unionized. The cause of these nine unnecessary fatalities is clear. It’s non-union management and all those who enable their shady practices.


Unionized workers have more training, often through years of apprenticeship. They have clearer channels to report violations and an organization to back them against employer retaliation if they do.


"It’s critical that decision makers continue to advance measures that bring the operation of all construction sites in line with the safety standards and protocols required at union construction sites," said Gary LaBarbera, President of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, a labor union coalition, in a statement.


It’s critical that more large projects be awarded to unions. Doing so would have saved the lives of at least nine men in 2021.

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