Over the last two years, 31 construction workers have died in New York City, an ominous downside to the city’s construction boom. Critics of the lax regulations that have allowed construction sites to become so dangerous point to the decline of unions that once protected workers from hazardous conditions. According to the Department of Buildings, construction injuries increased by 250 percent between 2011 and 2015.
As evidence that the decline of unions has imperiled construction worker’s safety, the New York Times points out that 29 of the 31 deaths in the City over the last year were non-union construction workers. This sad statistic is not particularly surprising, though – according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) non-union contracts make up 90 percent of the “Severe Violator Enforcement Program,” an involuntary program for habitual and serious offenders.
Government regulators have failed to step up and fill the void left by declining unionization in New York. Despite an 18 percent increase in the number of building permits issued between 2011 and 2014, the number of OSHA investigators for the state has declined by 13 percent. According to the New York Times, there were only 71 inspectors left in the state at the end of 2014. Since that time, funding for the federal agency has seen even further cuts.
Predictably, OSHA does not regularly inspect construction sites in the state. When it does, it typically finds several serious violations, among a plethora of lower-level offenses. According to the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a nonprofit focused on worker safety, 73 percent of OSHA inspections found a “serious violation” – most commonly dealing with insufficient “fall protection” measures, which is also the leading cause of construction workers deaths in New York City.
The declining safety standards in New York largely mirrors the rest of the nation, which saw an 8 percent year-over-year increase in construction deaths in 2014. The decline of unions combined with the consolidation in the construction industry has left unions in a weakened bargaining situation, afraid to push too-hard for safety standards for fear the construction company or contractor will just choose from the large market of non-unionized construction workers.
Unfortunately, the problem will likely only get worse. Unions for construction workers do not show any signs of returning to their previous glory, and OSHA’s budget is expected to cut even further. President Trump’s administration has put a hiring freeze on the federal agency and plans to cut existing worker safety regulations by a full 75 percent.