NY Construction Deaths Spiral Out Of Control (and believe us when we say OR-OSHA is just as inefficient and dangerous)

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Posted by Trina LIWU95 (posted here by IWA member) on February 08, 1999 at 17:38:51:

Construction Deaths Spiral Out Of Control
by Bob Fitch

New York City __"A very well run site with very few violations." So proclaimed City Buildings Commissioner Gaston Silva on July 22d after a 20 story chunk of elevator scaffolding snapped off developer Douglas Durst's $500 million Conde Nast building killing one, injuring a dozen and closing down Times Square for seven days.
True, just two weeks before, carpenter Charles Robbins, had been crushed to death in the Conde Nast elevator shaft. And Robbins' death had marked the
third accident on the project since January. Still, OSHA investigators visited the site in June and gave it a clean bill of health. Wasn't the problem
created by Robbins, suggested an anonymous investigator to the New York Times, who pronounced himself "baffled" that the 44 year old carpenter would be in the elevator shaft while it was in use?
> Robbins fate was sad, but unpreventable, authorities explain, like laborer Luis Gomez, who was buried alive at a Con Edison construction site in Tribeca
on July 11th. Gomez,they say, simply had no business working in a hole while co-workers were filling it up with concrete. OSHA found no violations at the
Con Ed project either.
> If all the projects are so well-run how come construction death rates are spiraling? New York City had 23 fatalities in 1996 for 91,000 workers. That's
roughly double the U.S. construction death rate average of 13.9 per hundred thousand. But the national figures themselves are nothing for construction
industry executives to be proud of. No urban-based industry has a higher death rate than construction. Construction deaths occur at four times higher than
the rate in manufacturing.
Iron workers are spectacularly at risk. In the trades, their death rates are easily the highest - double the next most dangerous construction trade -
laborers. And ten times more dangerous than plumbers - who themselves are
twice as likely to die on the job as factory workers.
The wide variance of death rates within the trades undermines the companies'
argument that construction deaths result simply from the negligence or drunkenness of individual workers. "In any thousand men there are bound to be some with a drinking problem, and those are often the ones who miss their step on a ladder," explains Karl Sabbagh, who wrote the HRH-friendly, Skyscraper, about the construction of Worldwide Plaza. "Although the ironworkers have the most visibly dangerous jobs," explains Sabbagh, whose book was made into a PBS
TV documentary,"they don't suffer the most accidents, perhaps for the obvious reason that anyone doing something so clearly hazardous will take a great deal
more care than when walking on firm ground."
Sabbagh expresses the pure industry viewpoint: safety is an individual, not an industry problem. Given proper precautions, iron working can be made as
safe as stock selling. In fact, the increasing death rates suffered by construction workers can be understood only in terms of an industry where losing workers' lives is cost effective.
The incentive to ignore construction safety is as towering as the cost of capital. Developers like Durst hear the tick-tick-tick of the interest rate clock on their construction loans. He's borrowed half a billion dollars.
Interest costs on the Conde Nast will run higher than the construction costs.
Developers naturally choose general contractors who will do the job fast, so tenants can move in and start paying those nine-figure costs.
The safety officer is paid by the contractor. His principle job is not preventing deaths. It's first of all, preventing safety procedures from costing money and delaying the project. And second, making sure that deaths are blamed on workers' negligence not on his employers. Safety comes third.
Given these priorities is it a surprise that self-regulation isn't working?
What can you expect when control of the project is in the hands not of those who are at risk of dying, but by those who can profit by ignoring the risk?
> Meanwhile, though, every year, a bad system is made worse by falling labor standards, weak unions, crooked safety inspectors, hostile media and indifferent public officials. Does anyone care?. Not the Mayor. He's concerned with compensating store owners who've lost business as a result of the crash.
And the New York Post' is worried about thirsty kittens left in a sealed off building. What about the growing total of dead and maimed construction
workers? Does anyone think the reaction would be so low key if 23 developers had gone down on these projects?

Reprinted in SWEAT Labor Magazine On-Line by permission of the New York Hard Hat News

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Penney Kome, kome@shaw.wave.ca
author & journalist. Latest book:
Wounded Workers: The Politics of Musculoskeletal Injuries

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