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As NYC construction activity climbs, so do worker injuries


With economic fallout from the 2020 pandemic largely behind us, the construction sector is experiencing a much-needed resurgence across the country. According to a Deloitte Center for Integrative Research analysis, nonresidential construction spending saw a 17.6-percent year-over-year increase in August 2023, while total construction spending climbed 7.4 percent over the previous year. Work is picking up in New York City, too.

The city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) 2024 Construction Safety Report indicated that the number of permits issued for new building projects increased 28 percent in 2023, in addition to a 28-percent increase in the total amount of new construction floor area permitted.

Yet that report also revealed a worrying trend: Construction worksite-related injuries rose for the third straight year. The DOB recorded 692 injuries, a 25-percent jump from 2022 and the second highest amount of total injuries since 2015.

This is an especially problematic trend given New York’s projected pace of development in the coming years. Last fall, Mayor Eric Adams launched a major rezoning initiative called “City of Yes for Housing Opportunity,” aiming to streamline the construction of 100,000 new homes over the next 15 years. This week, the New York City Planning Commission will hold its first major public hearing on Adams’ controversial plan.

Construction workers stand united on an overlooked element of this plan: We cannot move forward with that level of development unless all stakeholders make a stronger commitment to keep our workers safe.

With over 40,000 construction sites spread across the five boroughs, keeping tabs on safety practices is no simple task. Cuts to the DOB budget are not helping matters. A City Council meeting in May revealed that the Buildings Department has eliminated a quarter of its budgeted workforce since 2022. Many of those roles are building inspectors working to identify construction jobsite hazards.

In the first four months of 2024, the DOB issued only 2,225 stop-work orders — a 36-percent decrease from the same period in 2023.

We must ask: How can New York City truly embark on its ambitious “City of Yes” if it does not have the regulatory and inspection capacity to enforce critical construction site safety rules?

Those DOB cuts might be encouraging for bad actors, but for those of us fighting hard for workplace safety and leading OSHA safety training programs in multiple languages, these cutbacks are not welcome news.

Sacrificing safety in the name of saving money will exacerbate deep inequities baked into our industry. According to the New York State Comptroller’s 2024 Workforce Report, 70 percent of New York’s construction industry workforce are foreign born, compared to 30 percent on a national level. Moreover, an estimated 10 percent of the state’s workers are Latino, but in 2022, 25.4 percent of worker fatalities were Latino workers.

Safety education programs must have the capacity to be taught in multiple languages. Programs like these can be expensive, meaning we need funding mechanisms to ensure low-income workers are not excluded from accessing these trainings.

Shamefully, some contractors, often on non-union work sites, put efficiency before safety. When undocumented workers are injured, unscrupulous contractors have been known to give the injured worker cab fare to get to the hospital with the proviso to not blame or name the construction site where the accident occurred. Not only is this unethical, it’s illegal.

The DOB inspector’s ability to enter a site, inspect it and shut it down if flagrant violations exist matters greatly to thousands of construction workers and their families.

Rising injuries are also likely the result of inadequate training and skills programs that plague the non-union construction sector. It is why we prioritize apprenticeship programs that give workers the skills and knowledge necessary to build safely.

Proper certifications for site safety training, scaffolding, rigging, flagging and site management are always the prerequisites to qualify someone to work on a construction site. Critically, each certification program includes a standard educational curriculum designed by OSHA safety experts.

Construction is dangerous work, and without proper safeguards and legal protections, the work becomes that much more perilous. We tip our hat to the DOB and the many critical OSHA safety training programs engaged in worker education.

Yet we also demand more support from city leaders on the issue of worker safety. New York’s recovery and growth are exciting prospects, but only if the workers propelling that growth know they are safe when they step onto the jobsite.

Edwin Mendoza is president of Frente Hispano-Local 79, senior foreman at Lendlease.

Construction & General Building Laborers’ Local 79, serving the five boroughs, was created in 1996 through the consolidation of 10 smaller laborers’ locals. Local 79 currently has over 10,000 active and retired members and is the largest construction laborers’ local union in the United States.

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