The Deadliest Job in New York City: Construction Worker

It's more dangerous to be a bricklayer than it is to be a cop. How did we get here?

A construction worker is rushed out of a job site by a New York EMT. In 2019, construction became New York's most deadly occupation, more dangerous than policing and firefighting. — CXBS New York CBS Local

Juan Otoya was a 66-year-old construction foreman killed on a work site on the Upper East Side in 2018. Mr. Otoya is just one of a wave of construction workers killed on a New York City job in the past few years. Work site deaths are up 33% compared to five years ago. Work site injuries are up an astonishing 221% in that same span.

 

As of 2019 construction is New York City’s most deadly occupation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That includes policing and firefighting.

 

This is a recent development in New York – construction, while admittedly dangerous, has not always been the most deadly job. What’s changed?

A lot.

First, low interest rates have made large loans available to many would-be building developers, and many more NYC projects are now being funded. Step outside in any neighborhood, look up, and you’re bound to see a crane, if not 20 cranes.

Second, to satisfy this rush of building, many construction shops staffed up quickly. They had to decide if they were going to affiliate with and hire construction union workers, who successfully built our city with a much better safety record than the one seen today. Hiring union workers means adhering to training, safety and other standards. In part, for these reasons it is assumed that hiring union is more expensive than hiring non-union. So guess what, non-union shops boomed.

The competition to win construction bids is the third element in a bad trifecta. To win work from developers, too many companies cut too many corners, including safety, training, hours and worse. According to bricklayer Jerry Gozdyra, “Some contractors (are) willing to underbid the job, take it lower, and they look to cut corners everywhere they can. And the first thing is to hire cheap labor.”  

That labor is often undocumented, under-trained, and has no representation in disputes with management. In other words, they are completely vulnerable to the whims of their bosses, and as a result are victimized in a number of ways. One such way is a lack of safety training.

In 2019, all workers were required to have 10 hours of safety training. In 2020, they’ll be required to have 40 hours.

Department of Buildings Deputy Commissioner of Enforcement Tim Hogan says, “We are checking to make sure they have the training cards,” Hogan added. “We are catching counterfeit cards and we are issuing violations to the employers.” He estimates a quarter of the city’s 45,000 construction sites are not in compliance.

In most NYC construction unions, the training requirement is much more rigorous than the city’s standard, and the training is maintained annually.

Mr Otoya’s widow, Gaby, said, “He always tried his best in his life and in one second his life was gone, not fair, not fair.” 

There is no logical reason that construction work should be the city's most deadly occupation. The city needs better laws and stricter oversight to return us to safer days. Guiding more work toward union shops would be a fast way to get there.

Juan Otoya, center, at a celebration with his wife and sons. — John Otoya

In other words, they are completely vulnerable to the whims of their bosses, and as a result are victimized in a number of ways. One such way is a lack of safety training.

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