The Fatal Four:
Construction’s Grim Reapers
A look at the most lethal construction site hazards underscores how union training and safety culture can mean the difference between life and death.
Each of these men were victim to a different leading cause of death on a New York City non-union construction site. They are, clockwise from upper left, Angel Muñoz who fell through an un-partitioned elevator shaft hole, Gregory Ecchevarria who was struck by a 7,500-lb crane counter-weight, Edgar Pazmino, who was pinned by a forklift, and Thomas Tylutki, who was electrocuted in 2022.
The Fatal Four are a grim quartet of construction site hazards that claim more lives than any other each year. They are dangerous. They are unforgiving. And in New York City, they strike almost exclusively on non-union construction sites— often on jobs with a lengthy track record of safety violations. By contrast, most years, union job sites suffer zero construction deaths.
Let’s meet the Fatal Four hazards and explore why it is that non-union workers are far more likely to succumb to them.
Construction site fatalities in New York City could be near zero every year, if every site was union-run.
1. “Falls, slips, trips”
Falls, slips and trips are the leading cause of construction death. And ironically, fall protection is the most frequently cited OSHA violation (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). Accidents often involve poorly maintained ladders, unprotected floor holes or wall openings, improperly constructed scaffolding or workers not using safety harnesses. In some cases, like the tragic death of Angel Muñoz, workers on non-union job sites plunge to their deaths down elevator shafts. On union work sites, according to Victor Fana, a laborer in New York’s Local 6A, “The first thing the unions do is make sure everything’s nailed down, any holes are covered or railed off so nobody falls through. They’re always on top of it with safety.”
2. “Exposure to electricity”
Electricity accidents often involve exposure to improperly shielded, overhead or underground power lines. They also result from exposure to power sources like light switches, junction boxes and transformers. Frequently, unsuspecting workers believe the power on the construction site is turned off, when it has been mistakenly turned on.
3. “Struck By”
Most “struck by” accidents involve heavy equipment. Workers wandering underneath crane loads in areas that are not properly barricaded are one common source of danger. Another includes workers being struck by backhoes or other construction vehicles, like the recent tragedy at a non-union construction site in the Bronx that claimed the life of Linden Manuel. Anthony Smiling, member of New York Local 20, said that on union sites “there’s real teamwork between the workers. We been together through training, years of it, you know. And now on the job some of these guys are like brothers to me. We talk on the job to make everyone aware of what’s happening around them, especially with the big equipment like cranes and such. Extra eyes and ears, you know? We keep each other safe.”
4. “Caught-In/ Between”
This type of accident occurs when a worker is caught or crushed between two objects, caught inside or underneath machinery, or crushed in an excavation site cave-in. The majority of deaths in this category occur when an unprotected trench collapses, like the tragedy on a non-union job site that took a young man’s life and inspired the creation of Carlos’ Law.
The examples listed above are just a sampling of the many ways to die on construction sites. And they highlight why non-union corner cutting is so dangerous— the construction business is simply too perilous to put profit over people. Lives are on the line.
While the hazards are daunting, fatal accidents are not inevitable. With extensive training and a deeply embedded culture of safety, fatal accidents can be prevented. And these two things are the cornerstone of New York City’s construction unions. Without the protections of a union, workers are left vulnerable to the Fatal Four hazards, and far too many succumb to them each year.
Let’s make sure all construction workers make it home at the end of the day. Let’s keep New York City construction unionized.
Mark Colangelo is a writer and blogger.
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