Christian Salazar, AP, October 18, 2007
Forty-three people died while working construction in New York in 2006, the deadliest year in at least a decade in the city, according to recently released data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The death toll was up 87 percent from 2005, when 23 people died. Nationally, construction deaths in 2006 rose just 3 percent.
New York construction workers and safety experts point to the city’s unprecedented building boom as a reason for the jump. Scaffolds cover the facades of thousands of buildings. Major developments are going up in every borough. Apartment buildings and high-rise condos are being built at a frenetic pace.
“It spiked because the work spiked,” said Dennis Holloway, director of the John B. Scola Training Center in Queens, which trains union bricklayers and other construction workers.
Compounding the problem: The city has seen a big influx of immigrants at the same time as the construction boom. That means more immigrant construction workers who don’t speak English and may not comprehend safety warnings.
Oscar Paredes, executive director of the Latin American Workers Project, said outreach and training by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and city agencies are ineffective because of the language barrier.
Moreover, Paredes said some workers ignore safety precautions, sometimes because they are apathetic, sometimes because they are afraid to lose their job if they refuse to perform a dangerous task, such as scaling heights with no harnesses or guardrails.
The government does not break down workplace deaths by immigration status, so it is difficult to know how many involve illegal immigrants.
But a review of federal data from 1997 to 2006 illustrates some powerful trends In that period, there was a more than 260 percent increase in construction deaths in the city involving Hispanics, the largest and one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in New York. Six Hispanics died in 1997 working construction, 22 in 2006.
A review of 2006 OSHA reports on New York construction fatalities obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information Act request showed that deaths followed a certain pattern. An internal report by OSHA’s Manhattan office echoed the findings.
Workers were more likely to die on construction jobs if they were foreign-born, Hispanic, spoke a language other than English, and worked for a nonunion crew. They were also more likely to die from injuries sustained from falls.
Construction workers and experts agree that a lack of training, especially for immigrants who don’t speak English, plays a big role in the number of deaths.
“You have to remember that the percentage of construction workers that are Hispanic or Mexican is growing leaps and bounds,” said Michael McCann, the director of safety research for the Maryland-based Center to Protect Workers’ Rights. “That’s getting to be a training issue.”