Construction Accident

The City Council finally passed a bill in late September which requires workers on most construction sites to receive at least 40 hours of safety training before being allowed on buildings over nine stories tall. The vote came on the heels of two Manhattan construction workers’ deaths on the same day, in separate incidents.

The numbers of local construction accidents have gradually climbed in recent years. Many victims are undocumented immigrants who are sometimes poorly trained and afraid to speak out about their training or unsafe working conditions. Federal safety investigators have concluded that most of these deaths were “completely avoidable.” But high construction death counts so far in 2017 (eight, according the city’s Department of Buildings), coupled with 12 worker deaths in both 2016 and 2015, have spurred this passionate, protracted debate.

Lawmakers, real estate groups and workers themselves agree that construction safety regulations in New York City needed attention. But as usually happens, straightforward efforts at any serious reform can become watered down as different interests spend more energy on protecting political turf than fixing a problem. So by only addressing the safety instruction portion at the expense of actually strengthening safety regulations themselves, whose ox is being saved, and whose is being gored?

The final bill was a far cry from its first version, introduced in January 2017. Brooklyn’s Democratic Councilman Jumaane D. Williams’ bill would have required workers to complete 59 hours of training. But it elicited significant pushback from a coalition of interests such as real estate and independent contractors, as well as civil rights and immigration advocates.

These opponents complained the bill would favor unions, whose members could have been exempt from the new training requirements, at the expense of day workers and independent contractors. Most immigrants and entry-level minority workers may lack the funds or language skills to be effectively trained. And the finished bill’s fines against construction site owners of up to $25,000 for each untrained worker also drew opponents’ ire.

But the bill does pledge $5 million to help defer costs for day laborer and small contractors’ training, because they might not be able to afford the training. It also relaxed the deadline for implementation of the new safety regulations: December 2018 and possibly later if workers complete at least 10 instruction hours by March 2018.

So it’s little surprise that cracks in this compromise bill may already be showing. Safety apprenticeship programs are primarily run by unions. So the bill could cost some non-union workers their jobs, and maybe even steer more work to union shops, while pretending to boost safety. Some of the bill’s opponents note that since organized labor is down to just 2 percent of local new-building-construction jobs, the bill is part of a major push to kill non-union competition.

Furthermore, the bill doesn’t do much for overall job-site safety, focusing primarily on building overall worker skills and safety “awareness.”

So even if making construction sites safer is one of the expressed goals of the new law, the fact that it benefits unions at the expense of other workers (and apparently does little to actually make construction jobsites safer) means the debate for construction safety legislation in New York City will probably continue.

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