An Inspector Assaulted
What happens when an NYC DOB building inspector is attacked in the field by a builder?
Building inspectors are some of the most overlooked workers within New York City’s turbulent construction industry, even though they hold the critical responsibility of ensuring that safety measures are met across the five boroughs’ active job sites. As Union-Built Matters detailed in an exposé published in September, inspectors’ roles have become more and more synonymous with danger as non-union work has proliferated across the buildings world. And as injuries and deaths within the industry mount, inspectors’ workloads rise. This combination of more work and more non-union contractors on the scene means inspectors face more threats—including assault on the job, as will be detailed below.
Though their ranks have been expanded to 800 workers inspecting the city’s more than 40,000 active construction sites, according to the Department of Buildings (DOB), inspectors are suffering perhaps more than ever. In August, the International Union of Operating Engineers’ (IUOE) Local 211 labor union published an extensive list of contract demands—most of them addressing hardships like poor wages and dangerous working conditions.
“We feel like we’re the forgotten ones of the city workers,” said president and business manager of the Local 211 Matthew Gugliotta, who was sworn in in September. “We’re not a huge union, and we don’t have thousands of employees like the police, fire, corrections, or sanitation departments. But—we do a big job, monitoring countless buildings in the city in addition to ones under construction.”
The contract demands have not garnered a response yet, but Gugliotta is hoping some progress will made during upcoming labor relations meetings. He is especially concerned about getting inspectors fair pay and offering them a career path.
And of course, there is the matter of the sometimes frighteningly dangerous working conditions inspectors can find themselves in, especially when entering non-union job sites.
“Inspectors are trying to keep the public safe by keeping buildings safe. But then there might be contractors who look at them with contempt because they don’t want them on the job because they’re worried about the violation.”
— Matthew Gugliotta
Business Manager, Local 211
The attacker (his face obscured for legal reasons) put his hands on the inspector—an act caught here in a photo the inspector was able to take with his phone.
The dangers of being an inspector
“Inspectors are trying to keep the public safe by keeping buildings safe,” said Gugliotta. “But then there might be contractors who look at them with contempt because they don’t want them on the job because they’re worried about the violation.” The Local 211 advises that inspectors “maintain professionalism and respect at all times,” said Gugliotta, though of course that is a difficult thing to do when someone like a disgruntled contractor on a job site is yelling at them. “We tell our inspectors to walk away if they have to, to not let the situation escalate. But still, there are times when it goes too far, and guys get assaulted.”
While the DOB recently told Union-Built Matters that attacks on inspectors on the job are “a rare occurrence,” Gugliotta said that even if it only happens twice a year, that’s “a couple of times too many.” He said there has certainly been an increase in violence against inspectors over “the past five years,” and expressed concerned that somebody will get killed before politicians step up to sponsor a bill. “We’ve had people assaulted, we’ve had people injured,” he said. “Sometimes the assault is them being pushed to the edge of a building and threatened about being thrown off. At least three to five times a year, I’d say, an inspector is assaulted in some form.” Gugliotta expressed his disappointment that the union now has to work so hard to improve the situation for inspectors. “Inspectors are just trying to make sure people are living in a safe and good environment, and then they’re given a hard time or reacted to with violence,” he said. “It just makes no sense.”
And it’s not only contractors or workers that inspectors might face threats from—its building residents whose homes inspectors are trying to make safe. Gugliotta spoke of a plumbing inspector conducting a sign-off inspection during which he was meant to check the gas connection in someone’s apartment unit. “The person went nuts and threw a metal stove grate at the inspector—right in the head—from the top of a flight of stairs,” Gugliotta detailed, adding that the inspector was around 70 years old and suffered from a bad laceration.
A screen-grab of the DOB complaints database shows multiple violations listed for the address where the assault occurred, including working without a permit and without proper shoring equipment installed.
A recent Brooklyn attack
Gugliotta also described a situation that occurred in October at a non-union job site in Brooklyn—at 2059 63rd Street, an address with an active stop-work order and multiple complaints logged against it, according to its property profile overview on the DOB website. “An inspector walked onto the job site and three guys pushed him down and dragged him off the site,” Gugliotta said, explaining that they did not want the inspector to notice that they were working against a stop-work order in the back of the property. “The agency was debriefed about what happened, the police were notified, and a police report was filed,” Gugliotta continued. “The police took the inspector around to try to find the individuals who attacked him and point them out, but they were gone. They fled the scene.”
The inspector who was attacked, who has had the role for three and a half years, offered his full account of the incident to Union-Built Matters:
On October 21, 2022, I was told to monitor a building that is on a full stop-work order. Though the order was in effect, construction operation was continuing, as per a neighbor’s complaint. Occupants of a neighboring building were concerned about their building’s stability.
The jobsite gates were locked, the windows were blacked out, and the foundation work was concealed by a large tarp, but I heard work in progress. After waiting for about an hour, I observed three workers walk out of the jobsite, leaving the gate open. That was my opportunity to gain access.
As I walked in through the open gate between two buildings, I heard someone running behind me. The worker that ran up behind me grabbed my jacket and pulled me back as I was walking forward, causing me to trip backwards. As I got my balance back, he hit mee on the shoulder to turn me around, grabbed me, and walked me toward the exit, pushing me.
Then, all the workers ran to their cars and took off. The police were called and a report was filed.
The inspector attacked in this incident, who chose to remain anonymous for this article, said the workers on the Brooklyn construction site did not have to resort to violence. “We don’t get confrontational—all they have to do is ask me to leave,” he said.
How to protect the inspectors
When asked if he thought the Local 211’s recent demands might improve safety on the job, the anonymous inspector expressed doubt, uncertain of how safety measures could be enforced yet adamant that some sort of protection is needed. Moving forward, the inspector said he will “try to be more careful,” and next time will not risk entering a similar situation. This inspector has heard of danger in his field before; someone from his unit was hit in the face last winter while sitting in his car with the window open, and lost consciousness.
“If people knew that it was a felony to assault a buildings inspector—or a construction inspector, or an elevator inspector, or a boiler inspector—maybe they would have second thoughts about attacking them,” said Gugliotta, adding that legislation must be passed in order to see real change in this arena. “If we could get a law passed to protect us it would change everything—the way transit workers, police officers, firefighters, or sanitation workers are protected. If you assault them, it’s a felony.”
Perhaps bringing back “two-man areas,” as the Local 211 suggested in its demands, will lower inspectors’ chances of assault (especially, Gugliotta said, for Housing of Preservation and Development inspectors who often work in high-crime areas at night), though that might be difficult to arrange due to lack of surplus workers. Fortunately, the DOB’s Emergency Response Team (ERT) exists to offer any necessary rapid assistance to inspectors.
And Gugliotta said that inspectors’ appearances as uniformed city workers don’t aid them in terms of safety. “We wear uniforms just like the police and fire department workers—we wear badges on our hips, and sometimes we’re mistaken for law enforcement officers,” he said, yet still inspectors face unwarranted attacks “We’re looking to lobby to get a law passed to grant us uniform status like the other workers I mentioned—but that means cutting through a lot of tape and having politicians work with us.” If inspectors received a bump in status, it would help fix more than just their safety at work. “It would improve the experience of the inspector overall as well as attract good workers to join the department and help keep current workers on the job,” Gugliotta said. “So that’s really big, and it’s something, as the new president of the Local 211, that I’m hoping to start getting done.”
Jessica Beebe is a multimedia journalist living and working in New York City. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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