Huffington Post - Keeping Workers Safe, On Labor Day and Every Day
Pat Dolan, President of Steamfitters Local 638
Construction accidents are a concern in a major city like New York. When you’re dealing with steel beams, massive pipes, electrical lines, scaffolding or welding equipment tens of stories above street level, every day can present a danger.
As an industry, we are constantly striving to reduce the number of accidents and fatalities on and around job sites. Unfortunately, 2012 was a terrible year for construction workers. The number of deaths on New York City construction sites more than tripled from six in 2011 to 21 fatalities in 2012, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But here is a staggering statistic: nearly three quarters of those accidents happened on non-union sites.
The construction industry is one of the backbones of New York’s economy. The Building Congress forecasts $32 billion in construction spending in 2013 and $37.3 billion in 2014. By next year, spending will almost return to the 2007, pre-fiscal crisis, levels and the industry anticipates there being approximately 130,600 construction jobs in 2014. Spending on commercial construction, according to the estimates, is expected to jump 38% this year, from $9.8 billion in 2012 to $13.5 billion in 2013.
Safety in the workplace is a mantra for the unionized-construction industry. Through apprenticeships and continuing education, unionized workers are constantly drilled on the importance of looking out for themselves, their fellow workers and pedestrians. For our city’s legitimate contractors and construction managers, this results in considerably fewer work stoppages for OSHA violations, injuries and fewer insurance claims.
For the landlords, tenants and building managers of New York’s major properties we work on, it means buildings built to withstand the test of time.
Despite this, the “underground construction economy”, is thriving and unregulated in New York. Unscrupulous contractors, many of them from out state, are regularly employing untrained day laborers and not paying proper insurance or even workers compensation. Unskilled workers are given no basic safety training, don’t possess OSHA certifications and are producing a shoddy product. They are not equipped with critical safety gear and put into dangerous situations.
According to the AFL-CIO, many immigrants are at an increased danger of losing their lives on job sites. Workers who are undocumented may be at “particular risk facing abuse and exploitation and fearing retaliation if they raise concerns about unsafe working conditions.”
We don’t know the true number of accidents on non-union sites because many workers are simply dropped off at the hospital and told “good luck” by their employer for the day.
The sad truth is that the enforcement of safety standards, as well as civil and criminal penalties under the law, is weak to non-existent.
Remember that at one point in American history, workers like you and I had no rights at all. The first Monday in September wasn’t always a holiday. It was fought for and earned by the labor movement.
Labor Day was first celebrated in New York City in 1882 to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” With each year, we have improved workplace conditions for all Americans. Other major victories include 40-hour work week, the establishment of virtually every workplace safety law and the end of child labor in the United States. But we can always do better.
Organized labor is facing new challenges in 2013 here in New York. One of the biggest hurdles we face as an industry is awareness of safety issues on job sites.
Fly by night operations are not only a danger to the unskilled laborers, but to the eventual occupants of the buildings they are working on. During the building boom of the last decade, a lot of shortcuts were taken on job sites around New York. As steamfitters, we are constantly called in to repair poor pipefitting jobs that have led to black mold behind the walls.
In the end you get what you pay for. Quality skilled labor yields quality results.
Published in Huffington Post, September 4, 2013