There are several possible reasons the construction industry has seen an increase in workplace fatalities in New York State this decade. One, of course, is the improving economy, which has increased construction and general economic activity since the depths of the Great Recession.  However, a quick look at how these trends compare, between New York State and New York City, suggest that there may be other factors involved.

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Since 2014, while statewide construction worker fatalities have increased, construction worker fatalities in New York City have actually declined slightly.  The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health attributes these diverging trends to different policies when it comes to workplace safety.

OSHA Inspection Activity

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a division of the Department of Labor responsible for enforcing workplace safety standards has generally seen reduced funding and scaled back their operations. Nationally, this has taken the form of reduced proactive workplace inspections.

Since 2010, the number of inspections performed by the OSHA has decreased by about 20% overall. The number of proactive inspections has declined by 38%, leading to a 32% reduction in overall violations.

It is natural to wonder if this reduction proactive enforcement activity has lead to increased hazards in the workplace. Unfortunately, the evidence is inconclusive at this point. While the fatality rate in New York State for construction workers has increased, the overall rate of non-fatal injuries, across the entire country, which is the full jurisdiction of the OSHA, has declined, as part of a long-term trend.

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This long-term, national trend is likely a result of technological advances that help make all kinds of workplaces safer. The increase in construction worker deaths in New York sate may be a result of other factors, specific to the State or the Industry.

New York City’s Recent Initiatives

With less enforcement of workplace safety at the Federal level, it is also natural to wonder what can be done at the state and local levels.  This is where New York City diverges from the rest of the State. Unlike the State, New York City has a Department of Buildings, capable of providing construction workers with workplace safety enforcement not provided by the Federal Government.

Also, New York City recently took on a few additional initiatives, which include…

  • Mandating 40 hours of training for construction workers on projects of ten stories or more
  • Enforcement strategies designed to target the four most common sources of unnecessary worker deaths; falls, electrocutions, being struck by and object, and getting caught in machinery
  • Reporting on specific incidents to more consistently remind workers what can happen if they are negligent

These initiatives, along with the resources available to the City, have lead to a drastically different outcome between the City of New York and the rest of the State.

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The rate of fatal incidents among workers is significantly lower for New York City than Statewide. In fact, for construction workers, New York State is significantly more dangerous than the Nation as a whole. Meanwhile, construction workers in New York City, despite having a higher risk of falls due to the number of tall buildings in the City, actually have a lower rate of fatal injuries on the job than the nation as a whole.

Conclusion

It is still unclear whether our workplaces are getting safer. It would require some more extensive study to determine what adverse affects the reduction in proactive enforcement from the Occupational Safety and Heath Administration are having on workplace safety.

However, there is strong evidence to suggest that New York City has created a safer environment, particularly for construction workers, than the rest of the State of New York. In any workplace, the goal should be to avoid all unnecessary death. In recent years, it appears as if New York City is moving in the right direction, while New York State is not.