When it comes to workplace safety and health, great journalism that thoroughly explores a problem is rare. When journalists put the necessary time and effort into these projects, they should be noted and praised.
The New York Times ran a front page (above the fold) long article yesterday detailing the deaths of three workers over three years at the same construction site. “The Men Lost to 20 Bruckner Boulevard,” by reporters Dan Barry and described how three men, two undocumented immigrants and one homeless person, were killed in workplace construction incidents.
Two laborers board an elevator at the top of a five-story building under renovation in the Bronx. They wear construction helmets, reflective vests and face masks, none of which will do them any good.
The older man, a supervisor, rarely talks about anything beyond what needs to be done at this work site at 20 Bruckner Boulevard. But he and his younger co-worker have become friends through a morning ritual: One buys the coffee and the other, the doughnuts.
The job at hand is to take two waist-high containers of construction debris down to the ground. The doors are closed and a button is pushed. The elevator shudders, then drops. The floor seems to vanish beneath the men’s work boots.
They scream as they plummet. A crash. Then stillness, save for clouds of disturbed dust.
It is early morning on May 19, 2021. And this site, where an old building is being transformed into a charter school, has just distinguished itself from the 40,000 other major construction projects in New York City by having its third worker fatality in less than three years.
In 2018, Marco Martínez, a teenager newly arrived from Ecuador, died after being crushed against a ceiling by a mechanical lift. A year later, Michael Daves, who was living in a men’s shelter and struggling with substance abuse, died after falling through a hole.
And now Yonin Pineda, a 29-year-old from Guatemala, lies unconscious and gravely injured. His diligent Mexican foreman, Mauricio Sánchez, 41, is sprawled dead beside him, his face mangled, his chest torn open, his blood staining broken concrete.
Despite numerous violations, only $28,864 in fines have been collected for all three cases. Although numerous citation were issued by OSHA and the New York City Buildings Department, almost all are still being contested. There were no unions which could have provided safety training and protection against retaliation for raising safety concerns. Martinez and Sánchez were undocumented immigrants, and Daves was homeless.
Martinez’s employer failed to notify OSHA of his death for more than three weeks. The law requires employers to notify OSHA of workplace deaths within 8 hours. OSHA eventually fined the company $14,589 (reduced from 22,186). The city building department, which is also required to be notified of worksite fatalities, did not discover the death for 2 1/2 years.
Daves’ employer also failed to notify OSHA of Mr. Dave’s injury within the required time period, and OSHA only learned of his death from the medical examiner. RLG Kingsland Services Inc received fines totaling $61,676 for his death, which are being contested by the employer.
OSHA cited KM Builders for Sanchez’s death and levied fines totaling $48,370 which are being contested.
Cost of Doing Business?
Why is this story important? First, the conditions and fears faced by these three workers are all to common for construction laborers in New York and elsewhere across the country:
Jordan Barab, a former deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA during the Obama administration, said that the fear of deportation and the desperate need for work can combine to leave undocumented workers particularly exposed.
“You have a perfect storm of unsafe conditions,” Mr. Barab said. “Not just the physical conditions, but conditions in which the workers are unaware of their rights or are unable to use their rights.”
Existing fines were too small to deter contractors from cutting corners on safety. “For them, that’s nothing,” he said. “It’s the cost of doing business.” — Francisco Moya, NY city councilman
But workers’ rights advocates are working to improve conditions for the city’s laborers:
Workers’ rights advocates in New York have successfully pushed to increase work-site training requirements and to regulate “body shops,” or labor brokers that supply low-wage workers. And they are working with legislators to pass Carlos’s Law — named after an immigrant buried alive at a Manhattan construction site in 2015. The bill broadens corporate liability in worker injuries and death, but only when criminal charges are filed, which rarely occurs.
Francisco Moya, a city councilman and former Democratic state legislator from Queens who helped write the original version of the bill, said the existing fines were too small to deter contractors from cutting corners on safety. “For them, that’s nothing,” he said. “It’s the cost of doing business.”
One at a Time
Finally, death in the workplace — especially construction workplaces — is not uncommon in this country, especially in New York. Over 4,700 workers were killed on the job in 2020. The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) reports that:
Across New York State overall, the construction fatality rate increased from 10.2 per 100,000 workers to 11.1, or a 9% increase. In 2020, construction worker deaths accounted for 24% of all worker deaths in New York State, while nationally they comprised 21% of all worker deaths.
In New York City, the construction fatality rate decreased for the first time after three years of consistent increases, yet remains above the national average, accounting for 22% of worker fatalities.
So given the ubiquity of workplace deaths, why was this story written at all, and why did it appear on the front page of the nation’s leading newspaper?
First, we have the not-uncommon class conflict: rich employers vs. immigrant and homeless workers. And we have the common problem of horrific and preventable deaths met with insignificant fines.
But most important was the fact that three workers were killed at the same site in just three years. Multiple deaths — such as major explosions or mine disasters — always garner headlines — for a day or two at least. Deaths on the same site over time, like at 20 Bruckner Boulevard come to light only through the hard work of good investigative journalists.
Every worker — not just those who die in a mass catastrophe or on the same site — deserves to be remembered.
But as the Weekly Toll shows, most workers in this country die one at a time and receive — at most — minimal coverage in the local media. Often, their names are not even mentioned and the causes and follow-up are almost never explored.
I spend hours every week compiling the Weekly Toll, because every worker — not just those who die in a mass catastrophe or on the same site — deserves to be remembered. And reporters need to be encouraged to delve more deeply into the causes of these never-ending deaths and how they can be prevented.
Bottom line: we need more journalists like Barry and Zraick and more new outlets willing to run these stories.