Scaffolding Isn’t Just A Nuisance—It’s Deadly
It's a perpetual presence in the Big Apple. It's also the site of many construction deaths.
A scene grabbed from the YouTube video entitled "New York City Scaffold Life" shows the inherent danger of scaffold work. This loose-plank platform is approximately 20 stories up, and the safety lanyard intended to catch the worker if he should fall can be seen dangling loosely by his leg, unattached to the structure.
The other week, I walked out of my apartment building to find myself in seemingly unfamiliar territory. Scaffolding had begun to go up in the morning, and my block had effectively become an unrecognizable sidewalk shed. This nuisance is nothing unusual for New Yorkers, though; the presence of scaffolding has significantly increased in the Big Apple in the past two decades. As of February 2023, according to the Department of Buildings (DOB), the city had 9,084 active permits for sidewalk sheds.
Surprisingly, these common city sights are the leading locale of injury and death for construction workers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, scaffolding-related accidents result in about 60 deaths, and more than 4,000 injuries, every year. Last year, five of the ten logged construction worker deaths in New York City involved falls from scaffolding, including last November’s publicized fatality that occurred on the Upper West Side.
Some of the names that come up during this discussion on scaffolding and deadly negligence include Manuel Colorado, who died in 2014 at age 34 when he fell while working unharnessed at a Williamsburg job site; Gurmeet Singh, who died in 2014 at age 58 when a poorly constructed scaffold collapsed on him; Bruno Travalja, who died in 2016 at age 52 due to an unsecured harness causing him to plummet 47 floors at a Hells Kitchen job site; and Erik Mendoza, who died in 2019 at age 23 while working unharnessed to replace bricks underneath a water tower at a Brooklyn Height job site. Those are just a few among many names, and of course countless go unreported.
While worker falls have long been the most common cause of injuries and deaths in the city’s construction industry, in previous years fewer fatal falls involved scaffolding. Can anything be done to stop this deadly trend?
Surprisingly, these common city sights are the leading locale of injury and death for construction workers.
Manuel Colorado died while leaping from a building to scaffolding in 2014. He was unharnessed, lost his footing on the scaffold, and fell to his death.
Bruno Travalja was wearing a security harness at the time of his fall but the harness was not tied off, and he fell 47 floors. He is seen in a previous Facebook shot
“Scaffolds are really important, especially in a city like New York where we have a lot of very old structures with masonry veneer exteriors and facades,” said a longtime city building inspector who opted to stay anonymous. “We often have a problem with masonry facades deteriorating, as many buildings aren’t maintained as well as they should be. So, the sidewalk sheds serve a very important public safety function, particularly in this very densely built city, where we tend to build high. We use scaffolding to maintain existing buildings, construct new ones, and tear down old ones.”
Scaffolds are temporary structures usually made out of wooden planks and metal poles, that are constructed outside of buildings so that workers can use them in order to build, repair, clean, etc. They come hand in hand with the erection of sidewalk sheds (as Bloomberg puts it: “Scaffolding lifts construction workers and sheds shield pedestrians below”).
The DOB noted that scaffolding and sidewalk sheds, while often seen together, are distinct types of equipment that “serve very different purposes and are not interchangeable.” There are many different types of scaffolds—supported, suspended, needle beam, baker, etc. Meanwhile, sidewalk sheds are protective equipment that, as DOB Deputy Press Secretary Ryan Degan stated, “sit on the sidewalk beneath a construction site or building that is in deteriorating condition in the interest of public safety,” in place to prevent pedestrians from being hit in the head by construction or building debris.
The YouTube video "New York City Scaffold Life" reveals the high-wire act that workers must perform hauling materials up and cat-walking along narrow planks.
Non-Unions, Of Course
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does have regulations concerning the proper use of scaffolding. It states that scaffolding must support at least four times the weight than it will actually bear, that scaffolding must be inspected before use, and that all employees must be trained to understand the danger associated with scaffolding.
“All employees must be trained by a qualified person to recognize the hazards associated with the type of scaffold being used and how to control or minimize those hazards,” the OSHA scaffolding webpage declares. “The training must include fall hazards, falling object hazards, electrical hazards, proper use of the scaffold, and handling of materials.” But, as those familiar with the construction industry are aware of, the type of training OSHA calls for is not always possible—especially when it comes to non-union projects.
“There was a time when most of the scaffolds in New York were built by union labor,” said the anonymous building inspector. “That ended sometime in the 1990s, basically after the time Local Law 11 was passed.” Indeed, in 1979 there was an accident in which 17-year-old Barnard student Grace Gold was killed when a piece of terra cotta fell off of a building facade and hit her head. Ever since then, Local Law 11 called for sidewalk sheds to be put up outside of buildings undergoing construction to protect pedestrians from potentially falling debris. “Building codes are written in blood,” the inspector explained. “And her blood was what was required to pass that law.”
A common New York City Street View.
Today, more blood is being spilled thanks to the proliferation of non-union construction work in New York City. As the Observer reported last year, construction accidents “most frequently occur on non-union work sites, many of which lack the standards of safety training and education on safety rights which are prevalent within construction unions.” Non-union work sites do not have the same oversight and training as union sites do, largely because bad-acting contractors operate jobs by cutting corners on safety in order to speed up timelines and save on costs. And non-union workers are unlikely to file complaints or speak up against malpractice, as they are often vulnerable laborers holding tightly to their jobs.
According to a 2022 report by The City, 27-year-old construction worker Raúl Tenelema Puli of Queens was confirmed to be working on a non-union site when he fell to his death last November. Puli was apparently employed by the subcontractor Colgate Scaffolding. As the anonymous inspector stated, Colgate is known to cut corners by having the same people do different jobs. “They still have to use electricians for the lighting, but for everything else they could have the same people do the work,” he explained. “One team could to the carpenter work, the laborer work, the teamster work. They’re paying the workers less and employing less people, because they don’t have the union work rules that require the jobs be done properly. That’s why union scaffolding jobs tend to be a lot safer than non-union ones.”
What can be done?
Over the years, the DOB has enacted various sweeps to ensure sound construction sites across the city, including a specific facade and scaffold safety blitz in 2021. In 2016, City Council member Ben Kallos launched a bill that would have forced landlords to finish repairs within half a year, or else make them pay the city to finish the job, but it never came to fruition. Disgruntled New Yorkers can contact their local community boards or City Council members to see if they can lobby landlords to get repairs done so that scaffolding can be removed. Otherwise, there is not much that can halt the city’s booming scaffolding scene. At least today’s statistic of more than 9,000 actively permitted sidewalk sheds in New York City is down a bit from 11,370 sheds in 2020, when, according to the DOB, there was a noticeable uptick in data. (That said data, though, is constantly fluctuating as construction sites go up and down).
Building inspectors—an already understaffed and underpaid group—cannot be held wholly accountable for keeping an eye on scaffolding situations. “Inspection is a reactive process—you respond to complaints, so by the time you get there, something has usually already gone wrong,” said the anonymous inspector. “Ultimately, it’s up to the unions to be a lot more aggressive when it comes to organizing. Union leadership should organize workers properly so that construction work can be the kind of field it used to be.”
Jessica Beebe is a multimedia journalist living and working in New York City. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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