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Construction CEOs Fear “Dire Consequences,” Unions Offer a Solution

A deficit of skilled construction workers is sparking an alarming rise in construction accidents. Unions point the way forward. 


As more non-union contractors win projects to put up buildings in New York City, the overall safety of the industry is heading rapidly in the wrong direction. The data supporting this conclusion is stacking up.


Earlier this year, a report by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) highlighted a "startling" number of construction site fatalities, almost exclusively on non-union job sites. Now, a survey of construction and engineering CEOs conducted by leading safety consulting firm JMJ Associates adds context to the NYCOSH numbers. The account was first reported on Construction Dive. 


Alarmingly, 80% of CEOs reported that safety performance at their companies is getting worse, not better. This revelation is particularly concerning since it comes directly from executives, infamous for their ability to put a positive spin on almost anything.


What’s causing these CEOs to be so concerned? The answers they provided, sadly, are all too predictable. The decline in safety can be attributed to an inability to enforce safety protocols, inadequate supervision, and a scarcity of adequately trained workers.


A significant part of the problem stems from a dearth of well-trained workers following a wave of retirements of older construction veterans. The most recent data shows construction job openings surged to 129,000 in February, even as hiring decreased by 18,000. 


In response, non-union contractors are scraping the bottom of the barrel, hastily putting tools and hard hats in the hands of workers who have never set foot on a jobsite, without offering proper training. These rookies lack the basic situational awareness and skills to keep themselves and others safe and get the job done well, and they have no one to teach them. No wonder people are getting hurt and killed.

Construction company CEOs say that safety on their job sites is getting worse, not better.


A study by the Associated Builders and Contractors shows a half-million-person nationwide deficit of necessary construction workers based on expected growth of the market. 

Unfortunately, the skilled-worker deficit won't be made up for by non-union contractors — they are either unable or unwilling to invest in the types of training programs needed to bring in the next generation of highly-skilled workers. As it stands, not a single non-union contractor can claim to have an apprenticeship program. Nor can non-union contractors be counted on to enforce the safety protocols that keep workers safe. 


This poor safety performance is not only a concern for the men and women working on the job, it also impacts the people who will be renting and buying the real estate that’s being constructed. A building inspector who is on non-union work sites frequently explained to Union-Built Matters that “these sites that have a lot of safety problems, a lot of the time they also have real quality issues too. The workers sort of split their attention between concern for their own well-being and the actual job they’re doing. Safety becomes a distraction. And I believe this breeds much lower quality workmanship than you see on a site where the workers don’t feel especially at risk.”


The 2022 LIUNA graduating class of unionized concrete and cement workers each completed 4,000 hours of on the job training and 300 hours of classroom instruction to earn their journeyman licenses. It's highly trained workers like these who can best address the marketplace needs.

Fortunately, there is an answer that could save lives and improve quality: union construction. For unions, safety and training are embedded in the culture. On a union job, a dedicated shop steward will oversee all aspects of the job and make sure the right protocols are followed or work will be stopped. Union workers frequently undergo hundreds or thousands of hours of in-classroom and on the job training, ensuring the highest level of expertise in their trade. Beyond this, New York City’s construction unions are investing heavily in creating a  pipeline from highschool classrooms, to apprenticeship, union membership, and solid middle-class jobs. This is how the next generation of skilled workers will replace those now retiring. This is how we reverse the trend of unnecessary deaths and injuries on construction sites.


Mark Colangelo is a writer and blogger.

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