The DOB Safety Surge of 2023
A renewed safety push will involve unannounced inspections and educational meetings to encourage construction crews to follow safety measures.
An audit on New York City construction safety by the State Comptroller has lead the DOB to start a safety surge in 2023 in which they plan to visit many sites unannounced. In December of 2022, Linden Manuel was killed on a non-union construction site in the Bronx where he was struck by a digger. -- Dean Moses
Last September, the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) was reprimanded by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, who said in an audit that the department must be “more aggressive” in its oversight, inspections, and enforcement in order to prevent accidents—including injuries and deaths—on construction sites.
On the heels of that audit, and following a particularly deadly year for the industry, the DOB is in the midst of a new winter safety campaign in which inspectors will conduct safety enforcement sweeps through the month of February, checking buildings and job sites—including non-union ones—for potential hazards and educating workers about staying safe.
Announced by DOB acting commissioner Kazimir Vilenchik at the end of last year, the safety campaign will include city-wide sweeps as well as educational outreach to active construction sites. There are approximately 40,000 active permitted work sites across New York City, and each and every one of them will be subject to the safety check-ins.
The new safety campaign was launched in response to several recent construction-related deaths in New York City; there were 10 in 2022, according to the DOB, up from the previous year’s nine. In the months of November and December 2022 alone, four workers lost their lives in separate incidents on construction sites . Most recently, a construction worker named Linden Samuel was killed at a non-union Joy Construction worksite in the Bronx on December 15th after he was reportedly struck by a digger.
“We believe that every death on a construction site in this city is preventable.”
Acting NYC DOB Commissioner
Linden Manuel was killed on a non-union construction site when he was struck by a digger. Research reveals that non-union construction sites are multiple times more dangerous than union sites, where safety is a top priority. -- Sheneka Bonelli-Samuel
While all companies are subject to the crackdown, it’s mostly non-union companies like Joy that the DOB seeks to affect with its safety sweeps. On the same day Samuel was killed, another Joy worker was injured less than two miles away. Up until 2022, Joy amassed 34 OSHA violations and $67,881 in fines at 12 job sites. Seven of those incidents involved worker falls (the leading cause of injuries and deaths on construction sites), one of which was fatal.
“We must acknowledge that there are inherent risks whenever someone steps foot on a construction site, but that doesn’t mean that we should accept avoidable injuries and deaths,” said Vilenchik in a press release. “We believe that every death on a construction site in this city is preventable, which is why instituting proper safeguards and bringing attention to the dangers associated with work sites is critically important.”
DOB acting commissioner Kasimir Vilenchik.
Can inspectors handle more work?
DOB inspectors are tasked with searching sites for hazardous conditions and distributing educational materials to construction personnel. They will also speak directly with workers during morning safety meetings, making them aware of the potential severe threats that can stem from ignoring DOB or OSHA regulations.
According to the DOB, the city’s larger work sites are already required to hold pre-shift safety meetings for workers. But these meetings often get sidelined. During the safety campaign, inspectors will work with site supervisors to ensure the regularity of these meetings, and will visit smaller sites to encourage contractors there to hold them.
But as Union-Built Matters reported last year, though the city is home to tens of thousands of active construction sites, it employs less than one thousand building inspectors. The DOB’s press department explained that, despite vacancies in the inspector department, its employees “continue to meet and surpass service level targets, providing needed inspections, and plan reviews for members of the public.” The DOB is “committed to promoting the safety of all New Yorkers,” using its recruitment efforts to attract qualified candidates to the field.
The non-union aspect of it all
A question remains—will the city’s revitalized focus on construction safety truly reach the non-union laborers who make up much of the industry’s workforce?
“I have ordered construction safety inspectors to fan out across the city to hammer home the message to contractors and workers that cutting corners when it comes to safety can have deadly consequences,” Vilenchik said in the press release. The potentially deadly practice of cutting corners on safety is something that’s mostly seen on non-union sites, where bad-acting contractors are hyper-focused on saving on time and cost, even if it means forgoing necessary safety measures or training. Often, non-union workers—many of them undocumented and thus more vulnerable to exploitation—fear for their job security and consequently might put themselves in unsafe conditions in order to appease their supervisors.
“If they’re telling you to do the job quick, fast and in a hurry, you’re going to get hurt,” an anonymous inspector for the DOB previously told Union-Built Matters. “Or you might get killed. But if you need that job and your boss says, ‘You’re going to go up on that scaffold and you’re going to work untied and without guardrails because you can work faster,’ you understand that not doing that is a good way to lose your job, and you’re going to do it because there is rent to pay and kids to feed.”
The DOB’s press office stated that the department does not have data on which sites are union versus non-union. “We only collect this data after an accident on a work site occurs, when the contractor submits a Local law 78 report,” a spokesperson explained.
Photo by Dean Moses
Good Results, Then 2022 Happened
The DOB first began cracking down on safety within the construction arena in 2018, when it implemented new initiatives intended to eliminate hazards on work sites through factors like safety training and surprise inspections. According to the DOB, since those initiatives began, the city has seen a 33-percent reduction in construction worker injuries (between 2018 and 2021). Nevertheless, the city saw 554 construction-related injuries last year.
But with the additional safety pushes added to the departments’ plans since then—including 2021’s “zero tolerance safety blitz” and the regular publishing of safety-related enforcement bulletins—New York City’s construction site safety should improve.
Jessica Beebe is a multimedia journalist living and working in New York City. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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