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Construction Workers and Developers Clash Over Safety Bills

Building developers, builders and unions fought over a new slate of bills heard by the Housing and Buildings Committee of the City Council earlier this week.

The Council heard 21 construction safety bills on Tuesday, January 31 that, if approved, would require worker training programs, require site-safety plans for buildings higher than three stories and increase penalties attached to certain violations.

Six of the bills address crane safety, a major issue that claimed the lives of 17 construction workers in 2015 and 14 in 2016 according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). One of the bills, which would compel the Department of Buildings to keep track of any hospitalizations or fatalities caused by crane accidents, was introduced in response to an investigation that showed the city doesn’t accurately keep track of all construction deaths.

While OSHA reported 17 and 14 deaths for each year, the city Buildings Department only counted 11 worker deaths and one civilian death in both 2015 and 2016. Gary LaBarbera, the president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York commented that this faulty reporting is tied to a lack of adequate training.

“Right now there is no training standard,” LaBarbera said. “I don’t see how anyone can legitimately oppose additional training to protect workers on construction work sites.”

While many of the proposed bills have support from most groups affected by the changes, the ones that would make apprenticeship programs mandatory are likely to have quite a bit of opposition. The Association of Building Contractors, Public Housing Communities Inc., more than 60 presidents of New York City Housing Authority tenant associations and the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) all oppose the requirements, and John Banks, the president of REBNY who supports many of the proposed bills, said:

“However, the bills mandating apprenticeship programs on virtually every site and requiring prevailing wages on city-financed projects will do nothing to guarantee worker safety.”

In addition, opponents of the apprenticeship bills contend that it would exclude a large number of Hispanic and black public housing residents from securing jobs in the construction industry. While unions have made advancements in recent years, the numbers still indicate that the union construction workforce is about 45 percent white, 21 percent black and 31 percent Hispanic compared to the nonunion construction workforce which is approximately 25 percent white, 16 percent black and 49 percent Hispanic.

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