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Protecting the Protectors

The president of the Code Enforcement Officer Safety Foundation explains the urgency of protecting New York’s building inspectors.


The nonprofit Code Enforcement Officer Safety Foundation (CEOSF) maintains a global mission to ensure and promote the safety of inspectors across sectors. 

Building inspectors are some of the most overlooked officials in New York City—and across the country–despite the crucial role they play in keeping the public safe. Union-Built Matters has oft-reported on the crucial role inspectors play—as well as the dangers they face—in the New York City construction industry.  In the end, these people are underpaid and incredibly overworked. According to the Department of Buildings (DOB), there are approximately 800 inspectors overseeing the city’s 40,000+ active construction sites.


As inspectors’ unions like the Local 211 push for improved working conditions, higher pay, and uniformed status, Union-Built Matters sat down with Justin Edson, president of the California-based nonprofit Code Enforcement Officer Safety Foundation (CEOSF), to garner his expert opinion on the multifaceted topic. The CEOSF has made large strides in its global mission to ensure and promote the safety of inspectors across sectors. 


Can you explain what the Code Enforcement Officer Safety Foundation does and what your role is like?

I'm president of the board of directors. We're technically a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity. We started this foundation in 2020 during the pandemic. A bunch of us from across the country—building officials, inspectors, managers—came together through pure luck, and our vice president had the idea to create a nonprofit to focus on risk management and safety for inspectors. 


We recently dipped into Canada where we're representing bylaw officers. And even though we're called “Code Enforcement Officer Safety Foundation,” our work applies to all types of code officials across sectors…building inspectors, fire inspectors, etc. We're trying to encompass every worker that regulates codes on job sites. Anybody out there doing inspections is presented with dangers that don’t exist for those who sit in an office all day. It's just a different environment out there in the field with people. We wanted to create this resource that promotes awareness via trainings and articles and newsletters and focuses on inspectors keeping safe.


Justin Edson is the president of the Code Enforcement Officer Safety Foundation.

We have been tracking data since the 1930s, and we have confirmed situations over the decades in which inspectors have been murdered or assaulted. So, logging those incidents is part of our mission, too.


How do you track down that information?

It’s been a unique process. We found from our research that a lot of it is word-of-mouth; people who heard about us would come forward and tell us stories about former colleagues who were murdered or assaulted years ago. Then we do our investigating, using local articles and documents and things like that. 


We found that, over the years, there had been ample mislabeling of assaults against inspectors, instead referred to as “city officials” and thus incorrectly representing history. So, the data was often pretty hard to find.


According to our reporting, there were more than 20 deaths in New York City construction in 2021. Do you think this has sparked a newfound push for safety?

Awareness of this has certainly been growing. I'm proud that the foundation has become a voice for this issue over the last few years, even partnering with the International Code Council (ICC) and state associations. We've had conversations with New York’s building officials about providing our training. We offered support when the state of New York enacted a new law about who can access body armor, other than a police officer, and when the New York State Building Officials Conference tried to persuade the state to allow inspectors to wear body armor.

A bunch of us from across the country—building officials, inspectors, managers—came together through pure luck, and our vice president had the idea to create a nonprofit to focus on risk management and safety for inspectors. 

In this post-pandemic world, people are a little bit more aggressive, or perhaps more willing to cross normal social boundaries, so we saw uncomfortable incidents or assault cases start to creep up. Our foundation tries to help inspectors stay aware that not everybody they come across is going to be nice and complimentary. They might try to hurt you, they might push you. And we just want the inspectors to be safe out there.


So, the organization focuses on keeping inspectors safe in a variety of ways, not only pertaining to construction elements.

Our focus is on all elements of the job that affect how inspectors stay safe. That includes how they conduct themselves on the job site, the manner in which they lead inspections, what type of boots they wear, and how they interact with threatening figures. We’re using the whole gamut of risk management. 


One of a series of posters distributed by the CEOSF to remind inspectors that their own safety needs to be top of mind.

One of the big aspects that we hear and talk about a lot is how inspectors present themselves; there are some cities that have them wearing casual clothes like jeans, making them hard to identify. And that presents a risk if they are going onto job sites and interacting with contractors who may not know what they represent. If there is no uniform to show who they are, they lack a sense of professionalism, poorly represent the department, and could get attacked. 


I think you quoted a building official in a recent article who had urged uniformed status for all inspectors. It is unfair that these workers are going to job sites, making safety decisions on how things are built, and protecting the public—all without that clear representation and status.


You mentioned that the CEOSF provides safety training across New York. What do your training resources here entail?

Our main training course is a 15-hour class. It covers five different subjects for three hours each. It was approved by the New York State Department for ongoing training and is recognized by the ICC, which most building inspectors and officials are members of, and by the Department of State. 


We have it accessible online as an on-demand class and it works like a webinar. It comes with workbooks and other materials that trainees can follow along with. We’ve had great reviews about the virtual training. Also, depending on the size of the organization, we actually can fly instructors out occasionally to do in-person training classes.


What aspects of the training program do you deem most important?

An instructor who has 30 years of experience developed a curriculum in which each class kind of builds on itself. The class is focused on public interaction—talking to contractors, homeowners, businesses, etc.—and de-escalating situations. It delves into what you should be mindful of when you go out there to do inspections and how to pick up on red flags.


 The New York Department of State and ICC have approved this training course. It's called “Code Official Safety” and it's geared towards inspectors’ safety in the field with people. Based on the data we've seen, going out to sign off on inspections or condemn a property can turn violent. So, this is a great first step for inspectors to learn about safety practices.


A new chart demonstrates the danger inspectors face on the job. As construction volume increases, reported incidents against inspectors are on the rise.

We also have a class on opioids and Narcan, which has been a growing issue for inspectors. I recently talked to the city of Philadelphia’s inspection department, which had a situation concerning exposure to fentanyl. So, we launched a webinar for inspectors about what you need to know about fentanyl and how to use Narcan, and we’re seeing a lot of agencies distributing it to inspectors.


Do you have any thoughts about inspectors’ safety as it pertains to the union versus non-union conversation? Is it safer to work as part of a union?

On our global level, we haven't really gotten into the specifics of looking at union versus non-union. Being based in California, one thing that we look for at job sites is, are they compliant with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)? And we're actually partnering and working with OSHA regarding some other safety issues here in California. 


Overall, if inspectors are part of a union or following OSHA guidelines, anything that helps keep them safe, that's what we're supporting. So, if the union is pushing articles or guidelines about safety, training, equipment—that's something that we support.


A lot of inspectors in New York are pushing for improved working conditions and better pay. What do you think about their efforts? Do you agree that they are an overworked, underpaid department?

I totally agree that inspectors are overworked and underpaid. We see that even on a national level, where there is a shortage of skilled and trained inspectors. There aren’t enough qualified people out there to fill the vacancies…maybe because it's not an appetizing job, with low salary and poor benefits, people go elsewhere. 


I think it's important for any jurisdiction to look at how they treat and staff their employees for building inspections. If you overwork them, they're going to be worn out. They're going to be tired. There's a higher chance of workplace incidents in which they get hurt, because they're having to move twice as fast to get things done.


So, it does create a risk management concern for agencies when you're understaffed and you're not taking care of your employees. I think that is important, that cities focus on aiding the profession and helping that job class get the benefits they deserve and protect them. 


Inspectors increasingly rely on new technologies, such as drones, to provide more accurate, speedy, and safer inspections.

I was wondering about how new technology is affecting inspectors’ roles. Can things like drones be helpful when it comes to conducting inspections safely?

During the pandemic in 2020, there were a lot of remote inspections, with inspectors using drones or conducting work via FaceTime. This created a whole new dynamic for this work. Here in the county of Los Angeles, they've started to launch a whole program with a few inspectors assigned to it. It’s a specialized program to put in place for large-scale projects. By utilizing drones, inspectors could visually review where certain things are being built or placed. I am seeing an upward trend that the drones are becoming more part of our industry, for various reasons.


The drone usage certainly has a safety component, for instance checking out areas that a human being probably can't access safely. Then there are other situations where, as an inspector, you need to have your hands on it, you need to see it. But, for large agencies and big projects where you have high rises in development, a drone could really assist you. Drones will probably eventually go hand in hand with a building inspector on a day-to-day job.


Any professional advice you’d give to building inspectors when it comes to being safe on the job?

I've served in different capacities…I was a building manager for building inspections, and I’ve dealt with the code enforcement side. I've worked for four different cities in those roles. When I lead a team of inspectors, the biggest thing for me is to harp on all of the field workers about safety. You get into a routine…you're training, you learn the ropes, you’re careful… But as the years go on, people become complacent. I'll admit that I do, too. You don't think about your day-to-day. You don't think about, you know, “Am I wearing the right boots today? Do I have my hard hat? Do I have the tools that I need going out there?”


I’d also advise inspectors to follow their agency's policies, because you might go years without a single issue, but all it takes is one time for you to hurt yourself on the job site, or get assaulted, or have something else go south. You might be off work now because you're injured. So, it is critical that inspectors keep that in mind each day they go to work—for their whole career. Take ownership and pride in keeping yourself as a human being safe. Think about what you're doing, where you're walking, where you're going, because you want to go home to your families. 


And are there any initiatives your organization is currently working on, or anything you’re looking forward to seeing in this space?

We’re just excited to  have grown so much in not even three years and have partnerships with different states and organizations. Right now, our focus is on working with risk management groups across states to help look at managing safety for city employees. We're also engaging more city leaders to let them know about our concerns about  the fact that the inspectors trying to protect communities are not being looked after. We are really trying to spread awareness and help officials understand the urgency of keeping government employees safe. 


Jessica Beebe is a multimedia journalist living and working in New York City. Email her at

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