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Immigrant Workers Face Disproportionate Safety Risk

March 3, 2016
 / Safety / 

A recent feature story from the New York Times went in-depth on the safety and health strugglesof New York City's construction industry, which has wide implications for construction workers around the country. In "Safety Lapses and Deaths Amid a Building Boom in New York," reporter David Chen details disturbingly similar trends in incident reports and lawsuits involving construction deaths in the city for the past two years. In diving deeper into these official statements, with the help of hundreds of interviews, Chen found a persistent culture of safety ignorance among industry leaders.

"Time and again, in thousands of pages of safety reports, handwritten notes, crude drawings, lawsuits and other documents, as well as interviews with the workers' relatives and friends, the same issues emerged," Chen wrote. "In many of the projects, a premium was placed on speed, causing workers to take dangerous shortcuts."

"New York City construction deaths in 2015 far outpace any recent year."

More than Manhattan
In his reporting, Chen tells the forgotten stories of disenfranchised workers who often are ignored in the media, and unfortunately by their superiors in the first place. When most think of New York City, the sprawling skyline of Manhattan and plush Midtown condos likely come to mind. While business is booming on this densely populated island, the Times found only around 25 percent of fatalities were concentrated in the borough. The rest were spread throughout a city that may be growing faster than is feasible, as deaths and injuries continue to rise. According to data from the NYC Citywide Performance Report compiled by the NYC Department of Buildings, construction deaths in 2015 far outpace the same figure from any year in recent memory, with 11 as of August. Injuries are about twice what was recorded just last year.

Chen's article in the Times points out what has now become common knowledge, that most of these deaths and injuries have befallen immigrant workers disproportionately. With many of them undocumented as legal citizens, their right to speak out against safety or health violations is either unknown or sacrificed for fear of reprisal. Even so, a federal investigation into the problem concluded that most of these fatal incidents were "completely avoidable."

"The deaths make clear that the city is being built, or in some cases rebuilt, heavily on the backs of recent immigrants, particularly from Latin America, most of them not authorized to work in this country," Chen wrote.

Latinos bear greater burden
As ConstructionDive reported in April, Latino workers in particular have disproportionately shouldered the burden of unsafe working conditions in the construction industry. In 2013, the most recent data available, 29 percent of industry fatalities were from Latino workers, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet they accounted for 25.5 percent of the total working population. While fatalities of non-Latinos has fallen steadily, deaths for Latino construction workers actually increased, as the data show.

Chen told the story of one migrant worker, Manuel Colorado, who fell 19 feet to his death while installing decking in a new Brooklyn building. His was the first of three deaths within about a month of each other in the city. Another Latino worker, Jorge Juca, fell from a ladder in the Bronx doing renovations on a supermarket. Federal investigators found that his employer intentionally hired as many undocumented workers as they could find because they wanted the work to be completed quickly and cheaply. The workers were given no safety training, according to federal documents obtained by the Times. In another instance, a work site received a fine from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of $2,400 for a lack of guardrails, warning that a deadly fall could be imminent. Just four months later, a worker fell and died from that very location. His supervisors waited two days to file any report on the incident. The company went on to be fined multiple times in just a few months for various safety violations, the Times found.

Chen discovered that this was all too common. Five of the seven fatalities the city had seen from July through Oct. 2015 had come from contractors with reputations as repeat safety offenders. But those fines for safety violations totaled only around $60,000, according to the Times. A report by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health deduced that these paltry fineswere not taken seriously by most employers, amounting to a business expense. The company employing Colorado at the time of his death was fined $53,200 for the incident and ordered to add safety equipment, but neither paid the fine nor did as instructed, according to the Times. Even after a series of additional fines for safety violations, the company was still operational at the time of the story's publication in November.

Finding solutions
While government officials are responding to the issue by hiring more regulators and attempting to prosecute more offenders criminally, it is ultimately up to supervisors to lead the way in the fight for a zero accident culture. New construction safety systems technology makes the job easier than ever, with little overhead required. Safety training gets easier with the help of these construction safety products, which can catalog all relevant information and make dissemination easy and effective. With the help of innovative safety solutions, the help is there if and when needed.

Ultimately, the cost of equipment, fines or anything else shouldn't be the deciding factor in adopting strict safety protocols. The safety and health of workers is the most valuable asset available to any manager, and must be treated as such. 

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