NEW YORK, N.Y.—Spurred by the deaths of three construction workers within eight days in May, the city Department of Buildings has begun “zero-tolerance sweeps” of the city’s larger construction sites.
The department announced June 1 that its inspectors will visit “thousands of construction work sites” around the city. It said they would be looking to see whether the projects are in full compliance with their required safety plans; that contractors and safety professionals are closely adhering to the city’s regulations; and that workers are properly using harnesses and fall-arrest systems. Contractors “flouting safety regulations,” it said, could face fines of up to $25,000 for each violation.
The inspectors and the department’s community engagement teams, it added, will also distribute “Worker Alert” flyers with information on how to prevent falls. Employers, they say, must provide fall protection for anyone working above a drop of six feet or more, either a safety harness — which must be properly connected to a lifeline — or guardrails or hole coverings above floor and shaft openings.
Since 2015, the department says, 37 construction workers in the city have been killed and 1,029 injured in falls, “all of which were entirely preventable.” Overall, according to the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health’s 2021 “Deadly Skyline” report, 112 workers were fatally injured on the job between 2015 and 2019.
“The recent spate of construction worker deaths in our city is tragic, senseless – and even worse, entirely avoidable,” Buildings Commissioner Melanie E. La Rocca said in a statement. “Department inspectors have been directed to sweep work sites around the city, and unsafe conditions will be met with zero tolerance. The death of even one construction worker is wholly unacceptable.”
The department’s “zero-tolerance policy in response to construction deaths is important,” NYCOSH executive director Charlene Obernauer told LaborPress in an email. “The emphasis on enforcement will help ensure that bad actors know that their safety and health violations could result in serious fines.”
The Buildings Department now has more than 650 inspectors to cover the city’s almost 44,000 active construction sites, spokesperson Andrew Rudansky said. That number has significantly increased since 2009, when it was about 400; the inspectors are also responsible for overseeing structural safety in finished buildings. In contrast, the chronically underfunded Occupational Safety and Health Administration has about 1,850 state and federal inspectors for the 8 million workplaces under its jurisdiction.
Two of the May deaths that spurred the campaign involved falls. On May 22, Diego Lliguicota, 32, fell from the sixth floor to the second floor of a building being modified at 45-18 Court Square in Long Island City, apparently while attempting to remove a ladder from a scaffold. On May 27, a 49-year-old Bronx man died after falling about 40 feet from the roof of the former Flatbush Savings Bank at 1045 Flatbush Ave. in Brooklyn, which was being demolished. The worker was breaking apart concrete when it collapsed, officials said at the time. He was not properly harnessed, a witness told the Daily News.
In the third fatal accident, on May 19 at 20 Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx, a 30-year-old supervisor was killed and a 29-year-old worker critically injured when the elevator they were using to bring down debris plummeted from the fourth floor to the ground. The empty building, known for the History Channel billboard that used to be on its roof, was being converted to a charter school.
The Buildings Department issued stop-work orders covering the entire site after all three deaths. At the Flatbush building, it cited unsafe demolition operations. At 45-18 Court Square, it had issued four Class 1 (immediately hazardous) violations on April 1 for inadequate safety netting on second floor; inadequate guardrail systems; inadequate material storage; and general failure to maintain safety operations. All are listed on the department’s Website as still open, with no compliance reported. A hearing is scheduled for June 22.
The department is still investigating all three deaths and may take further enforcement actions, Rudansky told LaborPress. It did not identify the victims in the Bronx and Brooklyn accidents.
The number of injuries involving construction workers reported to the department averaged more than one a day in the first four months of this year. Of the 131 injuries reported, as required under the construction-safety laws enacted in 2017, 40 were on nonunion jobs; 29 on union jobs, including two not related to work; and 60 on “open shop” sites that use a mix of union and nonunion workers. One worker died on a nonunion job for Verizon in Brooklyn on April 29.
Those reports, however, do not list the two deaths cited in the “Worker Alert” flyers: On Feb. 15, a worker was killed when he fell one story through a floor opening whose covering was inadequately sized and not secured, and on Feb. 17, a man doing roofing work without a harness was killed in a three-story fall.
NYCOSH’s “Deadly Skyline” report urges the city to continue increasing funding for the Buildings Department. Its budget has risen from about $170 million in fiscal year 2017 to $200 million in 2021, enabling it to expand its staff from 1,500 to almost 1,900.
The department is also supporting a package of five bills introduced in the City Council in April. One measure would require all general contractors to be licensed by the department and giving it the power to suspend or revoke their licenses. Another would define buildings from seven to nine stories as “major construction work sites” that must have their site-safety plans approved in advance and have a full-time licensed safety coordinator or safety manager on the job.
All five bills were requested by Mayor Bill de Blasio, but none have yet received a hearing in the Council.