Where Are The Building Inspectors?

Building inspectors police the construction industry—but are there enough of them?

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A building inspection during construction remains the most dependable means to ensure a construction zone in New York City is safe for workers and that the building is being erected according to the city’s laws. “The more inspectors, the better,” said Ruben Colon, council representative at the Area Standards Department of the New York City District Council of Carpenters. “We can never have too many eyes on site.”

 

But over the past several years, the city that never sleeps has been falling behind when it comes to inspections; New York City is home to tens of thousands of overall active construction sites—but employs less than one thousand building inspectors.

 

“There’s a lot to this job,” said an inspector at the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) who chose to remain anonymous for this article because he is not authorized by the department to be a spokesperson. “When you go on a site, you really have to know what you’re looking at.” According to our source, inspectors usually work alone, which he explained can be a “real problem” if they’re inexperienced.

What happens when there aren't enough building inspectors to properly police a sprawling $45B industry?

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In 2018 the New York City Department of Buildings created an interactive map to track all active construction projects within the five boroughs. A DOB spokesman says there are now over 40,000 active construction sites in the city. The web page hosting the map is no longer available.

Now more than ever, that seems to be the case in New York City. There are reportedly not enough qualified candidates to fill out the jobs at the DOB, so hiring criteria was lowered. These new hires “are not going to necessarily do the job well, because they don’t have the kind of background and experience to enable them to do that,” said our source. “The people hired for this job should be held at a higher standard of training, so we know what we’re doing in the field.” Instead of having at least five years of construction experience, our source said, “now we’ve got people coming in with two years.”

 

A Clear Imbalance

This less-experienced class of inspectors seems to be entering the job outmatched by its scale. The number of active New York City construction sites right now is approximately 40,000, according to Andrew Rudansky, press secretary for the DOB, compared to about just 800 licensed and working inspectors. When one looks at the massive number of construction sites versus the shocking lack of inspectors, the imbalance is impractical and overwhelming.

One source explained that to fill empty jobs, the DOB chose to reduce their new-hire inspector requirement from 5-years experience to 2.

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With 40,000 active construction sites in the city and just 800 licensed inspectors, the work load per inspector is daunting. To quickly add new inspectors, the DOB lowered their 5-year construction experience standard to 2 years. -- New York Times

The strain on the system can have both immediate and long-term effects. Bad-acting contractors across the city can take advantage of the lapse in inspections and oversight, cutting corners on quality and safety to raise their profits. The prevalence of this cheating sparked the formation of the New York City Construction Fraud Task Force in 2015, and they’ve brought multiple fraud and safety violation cases against non-union builders.

 

But even with a task force in place, experts say the imbalance between active job sites and building inspectors will encourage unscrupulous contractors to take even more liberties with worker safety.

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Inspectors are tasked with policing how builders adhere to city construction codes, including whether they maintain safety precautions mandated for workers. -- New York Times

An Exposed Labor Force

Enforcing workplace safety standards is one of the most important duties of a building inspector. Our DOB contact said that one cause of unsafe construction sites is foremen driving teams to work too fast. “If they’re telling you to do the job quick, fast and in a hurry, you’re going to get hurt,” he said. “Or you might get killed. But if you need that job and your boss says, ‘You’re going to go up on that scaffold and you’re going to work untied and without guardrails because you can work faster,’ you understand that not doing that is a good way to lose your job, and you’re going to do it because there is rent to pay and kids to feed.”

 

Such management negligence is one root cause of the deaths of more than 60 construction workers in New York City over the past five years, according to the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH). Their March 2021 report revealed an increase in New York City construction deaths, stating that 78% of them happened on non-union sites. And in a recent Documented panel discussion, Manuel Castro, executive director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment, said that there have been about 500 construction worker deaths in New York state in the past decade, though according to Castro, that number is probably larger; there is no official log of how many construction workers die in the state.

 

The lack of safety measures across non-union sites is concerning because as the construction industry booms, non-union shops are growing faster than union ones, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual union members summary report published in early 2021. And in New York, that non-union growth comes largely from undocumented immigrant laborers, an incredibly vulnerable workforce. Joining a non-union company is simple and fast, forgoing the apprenticing, licensing, and rigorous documentation validation that most unions require.

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The purview scope of DOB inspectors includes everything from new high-rise construction to commercial store expansions to private home remodels. -- New York Times

But these undocumented workers fear deportations, which their bosses can certainly use as leverage to get them to do whatever management deems necessary. Without inspectors or unions to keep those managers honest, the non-union workers are often exploited. “There are laws in place that are not being enforced, which sets the stage for other laws to be broken,” said Colon of the Council of Carpenters. “This emboldens unscrupulous contractors to cross lines, be it in wage fraud, be it in safety, or what have you.”

 

Looking Ahead

There has been some push to make New York City’s construction industry safer. In 2019, the New York Times reported that, because construction-related injuries had risen by 62 percent to 761 in 2018 (up from 472 in 2015, according to city data), surprise inspections would be happening more frequently. “When it comes to enforcement, the best way to do things is just to show up unannounced, that way you get an accurate sense of what’s going on,” said our DOB source.

 

In June 2021, the city began to crack down on large construction sites, following a string of recent construction worker deaths. DOB inspectors were instructed to perform “zero-tolerance sweeps,” shutting down sites if they found serious safety violations. Additionally, this summer saw the introduction of five new construction safety bills for consideration in the New York City Council; if adopted, they would improve oversight and accountability on construction sites. So, there are indeed initiatives at play.

 

Local labor politicians like Senator Jessica Ramos and Council member Francisco Moya will continue to fight for workers and champion unionization, and the Department of Buildings is reportedly considering using drones for future inspections. But in an industry chock full of projects and in crucial need of legitimate supervision, the lack of that oversight will no doubt eventually reveal an increase in accidents, injuries, and deaths.

 

Meanwhile, the DOB actively recruits for inspectors in various disciplines, with a plan “based on new programs at the agency and backfill of separations,” according to press secretary Rudansky. “This may result in a recruitment target of between 150 – 200 positions per year to meet the agency’s needs.” It should be noted that there are also inspectors from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development that inspect multiple dwellings, and FDNY fire inspectors check out structures where flammables like gasoline or propane tanks are kept.

 

Do Your Homework

What should New York City real estate shoppers do in light of this information? Our DOB source says to hire a private inspector. “Get a licensed home inspector and have them look at the place,” he said, adding to also check the DOB website to view the property profile of the building. “Once you own it, you’re liable for it, and there might be stuff wrong with the building, and the next thing you know you’re going to get a violation. And those aren’t cheap. So do your own due diligence.”

 

If you’re looking for New York property, make sure to do your homework—and only look at buildings that are union-built.

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In June the DOB shut down hundreds of work sites after surprise inspections found many violations. 

 
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Jessica Beebe is a multimedia journalist living and working in New York City. Email her at jessica.beebe.ny@gmail.com.

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