Rise in accidents reveals dark side of New York’s building surge
The number of workers injured in New York City construction accidents rose by more than 50 per cent last year, stoking fears that builders are cutting corners to cash in on the rally in the metropolitan area’s trillion-dollar-plus property market.
Demand for residential accommodation in the city that never sleeps has pushed the median price of a Manhattan apartment to a record $1.15m, according to a report issued last week by brokerage Douglas Elliman and appraisers Miller Samuel.
Construction activity has proceeded apace, with the number of permits issued for new buildings in New York rising 18 per cent last year, according to Rick Chandler, city buildings commissioner.
But the Big Apple building boom has a dark side. In the year ending in September 2015, 356 workers were hurt in construction accidents, up from 237 the previous year, according to the city’s buildings department. Half as many workers — 178 — were injured in the year to September 2008, when the city’s construction sector had yet to feel the full impact of the financial crisis.
Mr Chandler said many of last year’s construction accidents were avoidable and that the city had shut down “hundreds of job sites run by contractors who weren’t prioritising safety”. It is also planning to hire 100 more building inspectors by 2017.
“We began an unprecedented effort to revoke or suspend the licences of firms that repeatedly violated the city’s construction code,” he said. “We will not tolerate the mindset that construction accidents are simply the cost of doing business”.
The rise in injuries comes as builders are using more non-union construction workers in New York. The shift is helping to contain costs, but might also be contributing to a reduction in safety standards, according to industry veterans.
“Non-union tends not to be as organised,” said Richard Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress, which represents engineers, architects and other professionals in the construction industry. “The workers are not as well trained.”
Louis Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers’ Association, which represents contractors who use union workers, says organised labour’s grip on the construction industry has loosened dramatically in recent years. He estimates that union members currently account for only about half the workers on city construction projects taller than 10 storeys and around 20 per cent of those on shorter buildings.
New York City workers hurt in construction accidents for the year ending September 2015
“The market has changed New York City and it has been driven by the tremendous growth in the residential market. That’s where we see the largest penetration of non-union contractors,” he said. “The tipping point came in the recession.”
The number of deaths in New York construction accidents is harder to determine because city and federal agencies use different methods to count them. The city said there were nine construction worker deaths in the year through September 2015, up from eight the previous year. Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors found that 18 construction workers — 15 of them non-union — died in accidents during the same period, up from 12 in the previous 12 months.
In the US, workplace deaths in construction and extraction occupations rose 5 per cent in 2014 to 885, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which has yet to release the 2015 totals. Falls are the leading cause of death at building sites, the BLS says.
They are rushing for a buck. Every time a contractor tells me, ‘Father, we are on a deadline’, I say, ‘Every time you have a deadline, you have a line of dead people– Father Brian Jordan
Father Brian Jordan, a Roman Catholic priest who serves as chaplain to the city’s building-trades unions and holds an annual “hard-hat mass” for construction workers killed in accidents, said the underlying problem in New York is that builders are trying to do too much too quickly.
“They are rushing for a buck,” he said. “Every time a contractor tells me, ‘Father, we are on a deadline’, I say, ‘Every time you have a deadline, you have a line of dead people.’”
With fewer workers receiving training in union apprenticeship programmes, he says New York work sites can turn into modern-day towers of Babel, with construction crews and bosses unable to even speak the same language.
“New York City is multicultural, multilingual, and multi-complicated,” he said. “But we are all unified in one thing: Everyone wants go to home after a job and go back to their families.”