The Real Deal New York

OSHA ill-prepared to enforce construction safety: report

Advocates say federal agency is underfunded and understaffed

May 11, 2015 10:07AM
By Rich Bockmann

OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels, a rendering of the Riu Hotel and Charlene Obernauer, executive director of NYCOSH

OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels, a rendering of the Riu Hotel and Charlene Obernauer, executive director of NYCOSH

Midway through a year in which construction-site deaths are set to reach their largest numbers since the height of the last real estate boom, advocates are placing blame on employers and the regulators tasked with overseeing them.

According to a report released Monday by the nonprofit New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health ahead of a City Council oversight hearing on construction safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is critically overwhelmed when it comes to protecting construction workers in New York state.

In fact, in the 45 years since Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, only once – in 1990 – has it voted to increase the penalties OSHA levies against violators. The result has been fines that amount to a slap on the wrist instead of a major deterrent.

“Many employers tally fines with the cost of doing business instead of prioritizing workers’ safety and health on the job,” the report said. “As a result, construction workers—particularly non-union immigrant workers—often fear they are putting their lives at risk when they step onto a construction site.”

The most severe penalty OSHA can issue for a serious violation — $70,000 — was 40 percent lower in 2010 than it would have been if fines had only kept up with inflation, the report found.

It also revealed that OSHA is critically understaffed. The federal agency had just 71 inspectors in the state last April – down from 82 in 2011 – or just enough to inspect about four-and-a-half construction inspections a day.

The report comes at a time when, once again, construction and construction-related deaths are becoming a major issue.

With the death of a construction worker who fell down an elevator shaft at the site of the Riu Hotel Time Square last week, there have been at least nine construction-related deaths this year.

That puts 2015 about on pace with 2008, when the city recorded 19 deaths.

Other high-profile incidents include the death of a passerby who was killed in March when a piece of plywood flew off the construction site at Rudin Management’s Greenwich Lane, and a construction worker who was crushed to death at Greenland Forest City Ratner Partners’ Barclays Center in February.

According to the Committee for Occupational Safety and Health report, nonunion, Latino and immigrant employees working at heights were the most likely to suffer a fatal accident.