Most of New York’s workers were probably too busy on April 28 to notice that it was Workers’ Memorial Day. But amid the hustle and bustle of the workday, a group of activists gathered at a West Side building site known for its poor safety conditions to issue a stark warning.
Antonio Sanchez of the Worker’s Justice Project proclaimed, “Every day immigrant construction workers like myself put our lives at risk. Many have gotten injured because irresponsible contractors provide us defective…machinery, weak scaffolding, broken ladders or simply no safety protection.”
The next day, at another Manhattan construction site, a carpenter came unhooked from his safety gear, tumbled fifteen feet, and ended up hospitalized. The Department of Buildings issued a perfunctory citation for “failure to safeguard all persons and property.” It was the worker’s second day on the job—and an eerie realization of the activists’ forewarnings just a day before.
Though the construction industry employs less than 4 percent of New York’s workers, it claims nearly one-fifth of work-related deaths—making it the “deadliest industry” (followed by transportation), according to a report on work-related fatalities in New York by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH). That construction is a dangerous business should come as no surprise to anyone who has walked past a churning urban construction zone, fraught with hollowed-out sidewalks and narrow scaffolds. What might surprise you is that it doesn’t have to be that way; the dangers besieging workers reflect the cold business calculations of their bosses.
Analyzing cases of construction-work deaths since 2010—many of them linked to violations of federal safety standards—NYCOSH concludes: “many deaths in construction could have and should have been prevented had the employer followed health and safety requirements and prioritized workers’ safety over the bottom line.”
From toxic chemicals to falling debris, every bodily threat is compounded by lax institutional attitudes toward safety, as employers can often neglect the responsibility to protect workers with impunity.
The precarity of workers reflects the atomization of the labor force. As union membership has eroded in recent years, according to the report, “in 2012, 72 percent of construction fatalities were at nonunion construction sites.”
Unionization used to be a vital foundation for construction safety, since workers can collectively bargain agreements on work rules and safety protections. But today, the industry is increasingly fueled by “self-employed” independent workers, or temporary jobbers, as opposed to regular employees, and they generally lack essential labor protections and are unsupported by unions.