The Workplace Fatalities Registry Says Everything’s Hunky Dory. It Isn’t.
The intention of the registry was to instill transparency across the city’s construction industry, yet the DOL has yet to log recent worker deaths.
A construction worker died at the luxurious Crown Building in midtown Manhattan in 2021, one of at least 9 construction worker deaths that year. That worker's accident, his name and ethnicity were never shared with the public, according to an exposé in the watchdog publication Documented. What is known about that worker, he was not working within a union and as a result, had little reliable protection.
In 2021, a non-union construction worker fell through the 17th floor of the Crown Building in New York City. He was, as Documented reported, taken to a hospital and evaluated for “moderate injuries” before he died. His age, name, ethnicity, immigration status, and even the cause of the accident and his death remain unknown because the company he worked for quietly swept the incident under the rug—a circumstance that has become all too common across the city’s non-union construction scene.
The Workplace Fatalities Registry bill, which was passed in February 2021, supposedly meant an end to contractors hushing up on-the-job deaths of New York City construction workers. New York Senate Bill S1302, introduced and sponsored by labor champion Senator Jessica Ramos, amends labor law and puts more responsibility on contractors to report fatalities to a state registry—maintained by the Department of Labor (DOL)—of on-site construction deaths, giving them 90 days to do so. The bill also requires coroners and medical examiners to report these deaths (within 72 hours).
The Workplace Fatalities Registry Bill was meant to stop contractors from sweeping fatal work accidents under the rug to avoid an investigation.
NY State Senator Jessica Ramos, a champion for the working class, was the leader in creating and passing the bill that established the Construction Industry Fatality Registry.
Ramos explained when introducing the bill how the definition of a “workplace fatality” varied among the state’s coroners and medical examiners. The intent of the registry is to log every on-the-job death in construction. Once contractors and coroners or examiners report a fatality, the DOL is responsible for requesting further details from contractors about the incident, as well as the age, ethnicity, nationality, immigration status, union status, and craft or trade of the worker who died. If contractors do not respond with the necessary information, they face penalties up to $2,500.
Where’s the transparency?
The Workplace Fatalities Registry was meant to go public immediately upon the successful passage of the legislation, yet, more than a full year after it was enacted, it was not showing any recorded deaths at press time. If the DOL’s purpose is to shine a light on injustice, why aren’t the fatalities being logged as promised? Upon reaching out to the DOL’s press office, Union-Built Matters received the message: “No fatalities were reported to us in 2021. None have yet been reported in 2022.” However, there certainly have been deaths in the construction sector over the past year. As the DOB’s second annual construction safety report, published this May, states: “In 2021, nine construction workers lost their lives in a building construction-related incident in New York City.” Why weren’t these deaths reported to the DOL and logged on the registry?
Construction worker Holger Molina died at this construction site in Queens in April of 2022.
Mr. Molina left behind a wife and 3 small children (upper left) and was remembered in a vigil set up at the worksite (upper right). NYCOSH (New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health) attended a protest demanding enhanced safety measures for construction workers.
A spokesperson for Senator Ramos said that their team has been working to make the registry properly updated, tracking fatalities across the sector and communicating with the DOL to make information public. There was alleged confusion over the technicalities of the timelines laid out in the bill upon its enactment, with different entities thinking it went into effect on different dates. Plus, there have been delays from medical examiners who can technically take up to 30 days before reporting a fatality, as well as from contractors who have up to three months to report an on-the-job death. “How can you crack down on something that you aren’t properly tracking?,” the spokesperson said of the DOL. “That’s the whole purpose of the bill.”
After all, a key aspect of the Workplace Fatalities Registry is its availability to all citizens, with the text of the legislation clearly stating that the information should be “electronically accessible and searchable to the public.” Ramos’s team hopes the registry will be on track sometime next month. An actively updated registry would reflect the city’s recent reinvigorated push to shape up its construction industry.
In February 2022 a worker was killed while working at The Bethel building in Brooklyn. Council Member Lincoln Restler (33rd District) said, “these avoidable deaths often include Latino workers at non-union construction sites. Our office will work to ensure there is a rigorous investigation into what led to this death. If there was negligence, we will demand accountability.”
Will Change Really Come?
Will the Workplace Fatalities Registry bill actually enact change? It should. “The aim of our office is to identify loopholes and shortcuts that employers use to cut corners on worker safety, and close them as quickly as possible,” said Ramos’s spokesperson. “The fatality registry is one of many pieces of legislation aimed at improving safety and accountability in the construction industry.”
In April 2021, Ramos spoke on the registry during a workers’ rally at Battery Park. “We cannot let contractors get away with whatever they want without facing serious consequences,” she said. “We have created a registry of the workers killed in construction sites so at least we can have updated statistics in the state.” Republicans in the State Assembly had opposed the bill, saying it would mimic investigation efforts by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), but Ramos and her allies argued—according to aforementioned reporting conducted by the Documented team—that OSHA details are not always reported back to states, and the purpose of the registry is also to garner an understanding of demographics. “We know who they are—they are immigrants—but we need to put this out to the public,” Council Member (then Assemblywoman) Carmen de la Rosa told City Limits.
A construction safety report by the New York Department of Buildings cites at least 9 construction worker deaths in 2021. The Construction Industry Fatality Registry website claims there were zero New York construction fatalities that year.
Before this bill, unscrupulous contractors on non-union jobs were notorious for hushing up incidents involving immigrant workers so as to not prompt investigations. So, if the DOL does indeed embrace transparency and make moves to keep the registry updated, the passage of the Workplace Fatalities Registry bill should be a positive change for New York City’s construction scene. Immigrant workers’ deaths would no longer go unaccounted for, no matter their documentation or union status.
At this time, though, union status remains critical, with the mass organization of trade workers across the city remaining a main goal for local labor officials. “Ultimately, the most secure indicator of a worker’s safety on the job is union membership,” said Ramos’s spokesperson. “85 percent of the workers who died since 2015 were on non-union sites, and over half were Latino. We need to drastically swell the ranks of the trades to improve worker outcomes across the construction industry, and passing legislation that facilitates that remains a focus of our office.”
Jessica Beebe is a multimedia journalist living and working in New York City. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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