Construction workers’ collective commemorates those lost on the job and provides safety training

Deaths and injuries to construction workers on the job have trended significantly downward in New York City in recent years, and hard hats say it’s thanks to trainings they’ve held themselves on the site safety, labor rights and how to safely report violations.

Like Brooklyn paper Previously reportedinjuries on construction sites in the five boroughs rose from 759 in 2018 to 505 in 2021, according to the Ministry of Buildings. 2021 Worksite Safety Report. Deaths also fell, from 13 in 2018 to nine in 2021. The downward trend coincides with regulations passed in 2017, as Local Law 196which requires workers to complete 40 hours of safety training designed by the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) before being certified to work on construction sites.

These trainings provide vital safety information on all sorts of topics, such as working with ladders, electrical work and excavation, in a 30-hour course, and training on recognizing hazards, knowing your rights and reporting violations in an additional 10 hour session. . But They are expensive: The required full package provided directly by OSHA currently costs $208, which is a discount from the typical price of $298.

Photo by Adrian Childress

Enter the Workers’ Justice Project, a collective that organizes and lobbies for the rights of low-wage, usually immigrant workers. The group has become well known in recent years for organizing delivery cyclists under the name Los Deliveristas Unidos, and successfully lobbying for major labor reforms in the food courier industry.

The group also has a construction worker division that offers its own OSHA training, unlimited numbers of which are included in a $50-per-year WJP membership. The group claims to have trained 4,000 workers in the past two years.

WJP delivers its training in Spanish, crucial in an industry where 56% of employees speak a language other than English at home (the vast majority of those who speak Spanish, according to a report of the New York Building Congress). Many are undocumented immigrants who may be reluctant to challenge their boss or contact federal authorities, fearing detention and deportation, so WJP guides workers, in their own language, step-by-step through their legal rights on the job. workplace, how and when to report violations (the group even organizes role plays), and who to contact in such a case, all imbued with the awareness that their legal status will not be taken into account in their complaints.

Although deaths and injuries have declined in recent years, in the years between the passage of Local Law 196 and the start of the pandemic, violations increased significantly, peaking at more than 95,000 in 2019 according to the DOB. Construction Safety Report 2019-2020. This is not because the sites were less secure, says WJP, but because workers are now being trained to be more diligent in spotting and reporting violations.

“It’s the workers who call OSHA or the DOB to report unsafe working conditions,” Yadira Sanchez, WJP co-founder and head of its construction division, said in an interview with Brooklyn Paper. “Now they know they have rights, they can complain, now they know they can say no because the working environment is not safe.”

list of names

Workers will continue to organize in memory of those who can no longer. Photo by Ben Brachfeld

Most construction work stopped after the onset of the pandemic in 2020, and because of this, violations dropped sharply to around 68,000 that year. The following year, as the industry picked up again though still recovering, DOB recorded around 78,000 violations, with Brooklyn leading the five boroughs with 26,255. That’s well below 2019 levels. , which WJP attributes to the long-term impact of strong worker trainings and DOB inspections where, if sites are found to be employing uncertified workers, they could be hit with thousands of dollars in fines.

As workers get a better grip on their rights and safety and the threat of fines looms for hiring employees without a permit, WJP says bosses are starting to understand that corner cuts are harder than before .

“The pressure comes from DOB, OSHA and worker knowledge,” Sanchez said. “If workers know their rights, they will challenge supervisors. But in the past they couldn’t do that, they didn’t know how to do it, they didn’t know their rights. So it’s more common. »

“It’s not just about talking to the contractor, but also talking to the worker about knowing and recognizing what a risk is, and how to lessen or remove or erase or fix the unsafe condition,” Sanchez continued.

Carlo Scissura, president of the New York Building Congress, a powerful construction industry trade group, said the construction industry prioritizes worker safety above all else, and said the decline in tragedies in recent years was the result of industry-wide collaboration to make work safer.

“Safety is and always will be the number one priority on any job site. The construction industry has always put safety at the top of the list for every job, period,” Scissura said in a statement to the Brooklyn Paper. “The truth is that the steady decline in tragic accidents in recent years is the result of a cooperative, industry-wide effort that involves workers, builders, contractors and even elected officials. To ensure the safety of our workers, legislation, regulations and licensing must always keep up with the changing times and technology Anything that can be done will – not should – be done as quickly as possible, and our members will open always the way to ensure best practices.

Despite the improvements, the very nature of construction work means it remains a dangerous industry for employees. Nine construction workers died on the job last year, including three in Brooklyn. WJP held a memorial for them last week, calling for increased accountability to ensure developers put the safety of their workers first.

“It’s incredibly sad every time we have to come together under these circumstances where it’s a vigil because they are 100% avoidable,” said city council member Jennifer Gutierrez, who represents Williamsburg, Bushwick. and Ridgewood, Queens, at the memorial on the steps of Brooklyn Town Hall. “I can’t tell you how shaken I am every time I hear about it. But I continue to be shaken because we are not doing enough. Every time we accept a job site fatality, we’re failing you, we’re failing the city.

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A construction worker died at a construction site in Brooklyn Heights on February 11. Photo by Susan De Vries, 2017

Nelson Llumitasig, a construction worker and member of the WJP, has lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant for three months since immigrating to New York from his native Ecuador, seeking steady employment, which he found in construction. He got in touch with WJP through a friend, completed the necessary training for his certificate, and is now earning a living in his new home.

But Llumitasig continues to organize for better working conditions for himself and others in the industry, finding that bosses still have a habit of cutting corners. He was horrified to learn that helmets and vests are not provided and must be purchased by the employee, costing him around $32 in total – and he fears for his safety, especially when working at great heights.

“I get a little concerned when they send me to really high heights and bring up materials like paint, without the right [personal protective equipment],” Llumitasig told the Brooklyn Paper in Spanish.

The continuing lack of assurance that construction workers can expect to get to work and return home unscathed means that WJP will continue to organize, provide training and commemorate fallen colleagues. In February, construction worker Angel Pilataxi fell 10 stories to his death from the roof of 124 Columbia Terrace. The former Jehovah’s Witnesses building was sold in 2017 to billionaire Vince Viola, owner of the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers, who plans to convert the property into condos.

Viola is worth $3.9 billion according to Forbes, and the sale of his townhouse in Brooklyn Heights last year earned him $25.5 million, the highest sum ever for a house in Kings County. Memorial attendees wondered why someone so wealthy couldn’t invest to keep his construction site safe.

“It happened in a luxury housing development,” said Lincoln Restler, a city councilman whose district includes Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Downtown Brooklyn, Boerum Hill and Brooklyn Heights. “A building that has sold for over $100 million is owned by a guy who has a professional sports team in his portfolio, an extraordinarily wealthy individual. But he hasn’t invested the resources to provide the necessary training and ensure the safety of workers on the site. This is unacceptable. This should never have happened.”

Editor’s Note: A version of this story originally appeared in Brooklyn Paper. Click here to see the original story.

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Alice F. Ponder