Construction job sites: the silent killer of immigrant workers

"Too many fatalities have occurred on construction sites in this city."

A worker guides a steel girder into place at a construction site on the West side of Manhattan, Monday, Sept. 12, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Richard Drew
A worker guides a steel girder into place at a construction site on the West side of Manhattan, Monday, Sept. 12, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Richard Drew

The New York City Council voted unanimously on Wednesday to approve a safety bill that establishes safety protocols as a way to prevent construction worker deaths, following eight months of intensive review by lawmakers, day laborers, unions, real estate developers, and contractors.

The vote came nearly one week after two construction workers fell to their deaths hours apart in separate accidents.

That bill, Intro 1447-C, would establish safety training requirements for workers at construction sites. The legislation would require construction workers to receive at least 40 hours of safety training as specified by the Department of Buildings; allow employees to continue working while they complete the training; and develop a program that grants equal access to training for all workers, including day laborers and workers employed by certain small business contractors.

The bill also includes a required 40-hour class with the United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (or OSHA). A fine of $25,000 could be charged to construction sites that don’t adhere to the safety regulations for not having trained workers.

“Too many fatalities have occurred on construction sites in this city.”

“Too many fatalities have occurred on construction sites in this city,” NYC Council Speaker of the House Melissa Mark Viverito (D) said during the council meeting Wednesday. “It has clearly become well past time to take action on ensuring the safety of our residents.”

“We are protecting every single worker,” Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D) said at the same meeting. “The road was tough, but everyone was dedicated to that one mission … to make sure that not one more death come before us in construction sites in the richest city in the country, potentially the world, that we set an example for others. We want to change that culture today.”

The legislation, which is the third version of a bill that has been debated for eight months, couldn’t have come at a more important time. One week ago, two construction workers fell to their deaths in separate incidents across the city. One, a 43-year-old father of five originally from Ecuador, was wearing a harness, but was not clipped in, before falling from the 29th floor of a building in the Financial District. The other, a 45-year-old man, was wearing a safety harness, but wasn’t secured to the bucket lift before falling as the boom was descending. Another worker died at the same site in June.

There have been seven construction workers deaths in New York City so far this year, according to the NYC Buildings Department. In both 2016 and 2015, there were 12 deaths each year.

In a city where 26,739 new apartments are on track to becoming available this year and construction permits surged substantially in 2016 from the previous year, construction site accidents have long been a silent killer for immigrant workers. That has especially held true for Latinx and undocumented workers who may be too afraid to speak out against unsafe conditions for fear of deportation.

As the trend in worker fatality data indicates, Latinx and immigrant workers have morbidly expendable lives. As a whole, these two types of workers outpaced all other major groups for fatal work injuries across all industries. Just within the construction industry, a 2015 New York Times report found that safety measures at construction job sites were often “woefully inadequate” as determined by safety inspectors, government officials and prosecutors. Beyond that, a 2014 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) survey found that fatal work injuries were the highest among Latinx workers than any other major racial/ethnic groups. Most recently, an AFL-CIO report from April, which surveyed 2015 BLS data across all industries, found that the “Latino fatality rate was 4.0 per 100,000 workers, 18 percent higher than the national average.” Among those Latinos who died, a full 67 percent were immigrant workers.

“Construction deaths and injuries has been an issue in our communities for a very long time and, frankly, it was not being addressed.”

Advocates for immigrant construction workers are glad for Intro-1447’s passage in large part because it puts a big spotlight on immigrant construction workers in the discussion on worker safety.

“Construction deaths and injuries has been an issue in our communities for a very long time and, frankly, it was not being addressed, so we’re thankful for the passage of Intro-1447,” Manuel Castro, the executive director at the workers advocacy group New York New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NY NICE), told ThinkProgress. “We want bad employers to be held accountable. Whenever there’s a construction death, whenever there’s an injury, that justice must come to those workers.”

Castro said that there weren’t many protections in place for immigrant construction workers before Intro-1447. Workers were given a 10-hour safety training. “The reality, however, is that a lot of workers start working on the sites without the training and it isn’t until weeks, maybe months after working that they look for a training and often they don’t find a training,” Castro said.

“They’re not given the appropriate training because the trainings aren’t vetted by anyone in the state,” Castro said. “The trainers are certified, but there isn’t much regulation over this. Other industries have a lot more extensive trainings.”

Immigrant advocates and construction workers hold a candlelight vigil at a New York City Council meeting during a vote to provide safety trainings for construction workers. CREDIT: NY New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NY NICE)
Immigrant advocates and construction workers hold a candlelight vigil at a New York City Council meeting during a vote to provide safety trainings for construction workers. CREDIT: NY New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NY NICE)

Castro and other NY NICE members were among those who held a “candlelight vigil” as city council members took a vote Wednesday with electronic candles to represent construction workers who had died on the job.

“When we talk about these issues, the people most impacted tend to be immigrant workers because some of the day laborers are without status,” Murad Awawdeh, vice president of advocacy at the advocacy group New York Immigration Coalition, told ThinkProgress.

“[I]t comes down to the responsibility of the entire industry to have and implement safety practices within the workplace,” Awawdeh said. “As long as everyone is doing it, everyone will be safe. Contractors, big or small, do deviate and try to cut corners and continue to put people’s lives at risk. How can we ensure that everyone — unions to nonunions, documented and undocumented — are protected? So this is just the first step.”

Awawdeh recounted waiting outside his office for a meeting earlier this week and seeing an immigrant construction worker fall about 50 feet. He explained, “We are seeing this happen on a daily basis at this point — the guy survived, but was not attached to anything.”

The bill has provided hope for both Castro and Awawdeh that the city is taking a big step to ensure the safety of its immigrant construction workers.

“It marks the beginning of something really important in New York City,” Castro said. “The city is taking an active role in protecting immigrant workers. As a worker center that works with immigrant workers and day laborers, this is a very important step. We want to ensure more is done, but this is a critical step.”