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NYC Said to Undercount Job Fatalities

Thursday, September 15, 2016

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The official count of worksite deaths in New York City is greatly underinflated, some are saying, while the office of Mayor Bill De Blasio is calling the matter an “accounting distinction” and downplaying its consequences.

Crain’s reported Monday (Sept. 12) that of 17 construction-related worker deaths in the city in 2015, only 11 made the Department of Buildings’ “Construction-Related Injuries and Fatalities” list, along with one death of a passerby at a worksite. That leaves a full third of construction deaths unaccounted for by the DOB.

Count Criteria

The discrepancy comes as a result of the nature of what the DOB keeps track of: The bureau only accounts for deaths and injuries that stem from violations of the city’s construction code, Crain’s explained in the report.

Mayor Bill De Blasio
By Kevin Case from Bronx, NY, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The office of Mayor Bill De Blasio is calling the matter an “accounting distinction."

Pressed on the matter, Mayor Bill De Blasio told the publication that it was a matter of jurisdiction; the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration accounts for more workplace deaths and injuries than the city DOB because it uses different criteria in its data collection.

Examples of worker fatalities counted by OSHA but not the DOB include a heat-stress death in July 2015 and a number of incidents in which workers were killed by their equipment. Those incidents don’t involve violations of building code itself, and therefore are not part of the DOB numbers.

Does It Matter?

A mayoral spokesman followed up with Crain’s, noting that both the DOB and OSHA do a great deal to try to prevent workplace accidents, "Those protocols wouldn’t change if we changed where the toll is kept," the spokesman wrote.

The publication points out, however, that the DOB is better staffed and more equipped to deal with local issues in the city than OSHA; the DOB could quickly change rules in response to a problem, whereas OSHA is slower to implement changes, as a federal agency.

Earlier this year, the mayor’s office announced a new initiative to try to prevent construction-related accidents, quadrupling DOB fines for serious safety lapses, and increasing regulations on supervisors in charge of maintaining jobsite safety.

Deaths Up in 2015

Even in by the DOB’s limited statistics, worksite deaths rose 50 percent from 2014 to 2015, going from eight to 12. Both years saw six fall-related deaths in the city; the increase in fatalities in 2015 stemmed mostly from a spike in excavation-related deaths and deaths classified as “other construction related.”

Site of fatal trench collapse in Manhattan
Manhattan District Attorney's Office

In 2015, a 22-year-old worker on this site in Manhattan was killed in a trench collapse.

In one high-profile case from 2015, a 22-year-old worker on a site in Manhattan was killed in a trench collapse. Contractor Harco Construction was convicted in June for the death, and sentenced in July to produce a public service announcement about worksite safety, in lieu of a $10,000 fine; the contractor said it would not comply with the sentence.

Crain’s also points out in its report that of the 15 New York City deaths in 2015 that resulted in OSHA violations, 14 were on nonunion worksites. Union advocates told the publication that they believe nonunion workers are more likely to continue working even when they feel a situation is dangerous, while union members are more likely to feel comfortable stopping work when the site is unsafe.

Union Vs. Open Shop

“If [union workers] are in a situation that they believe is perilous … they have recourse in saying, ‘I’m not going to do this,’” LaBarbera said. “They can go to the shop steward and there’s someone there to represent them and protect them.”

But, Crain’s points out, nonunion shop owners say the statistics seem skewed only because more and more big sites are nonunion.

Still, as New York real estate publication The Real Deal indicated earlier this year, nonunion jobs, while on the rise, only represent about 40 to 50 percent of sites in New York City.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Government; Health and safety; OSHA; Safety

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