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Construction Fatalities Soar as Non-Union Safety Slips


Unions train their workers to safely manage the dangers of construction. Non-union contractors have no identifiable training standards for their workers.

The latest report from the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) reveals construction fatalities in New York City are on a deadly upward trajectory. The report, ominously titled "Deadly Skyline," compiles the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the New York City Department of Buildings, and other sources. The data takes over a year to collect, compile and analyze; this most recent report covers 2022. It paints an alarming picture of the non-union construction sector.

The Grim Statistics

Sadly, 24 New York City construction workers didn't make it home to their families in 2022. That number is up 20% from the previous year, and represents an astounding 85% spike over two years. Importantly, the rate of construction worker deaths also increased, indicating the higher number of deaths is the result of deteriorating safety conditions and not simply an increase in construction activity. There were 11.5 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2022, compared to 11.2 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2021. This is not the direction we want to be moving in.

It’s A Non-Union Problem

The details matter. In New York City, over 90% of construction fatalities happened on non-union job sites, a ratio in line with previous years. This discrepancy underscores the safety gap between union and non-union construction, where the latter's lack of rigorous safety standards and worker training programs raises risk levels. It points to the vital role that unions play in keeping workers safe.

Hispanic Workers Hardest Hit

A disproportionate number of Hispanic workers are among the fatalities. Hispanic immigrants, including many undocumented workers, comprise an estimated 10% of New York’s workforce, yet they accounted for 25.4% of the fatalities in 2022. This statistic underscores the dangerous systemic issues that put them at greater risk. Union Built Matters has previously reported on the ways in which predatory non-union contractors exploit immigrant laborers to do dangerous work without proper training or safety measures. Sadly, the numbers reflect those practices.

Under-funded regulators cannot keep up with non-union's safety offenses and workers are paying the price with their lives.

Regulators Are Hamstrung

Underfunding and understaffing of agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the New York City Department of Buildings (NYC DOB) is preventing regulators from doing their job. With OSHA inspections 30% below pre-pandemic levels and the NYC DOB facing budget cuts and a high vacancy rate, the enforcement of safety standards is compromised. This leaves non-union workers in peril. Adding insult to injury, the worst safety offenders are still getting government money. As the report takes pains to point out: “contractors’ OSHA violations coincide with construction worker fatalities, yet violations do not prevent contractors from receiving government subsidies.”

The Obvious Solution

Given the stark difference in fatality rates between union and non-union job sites, it’s clear that increasing the union sector share of construction projects would save lives. We need to give regulators sufficient resources to do their job, but in the meantime, workers on non-union job sites need more protection. There is no substitute for construction contractors that self-enforce the highest safety standards and invest in training their workers to deal with the dangers of construction and make it home at the end of the day. That means hiring union.


Mark Colangelo is a writer and blogger.

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