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City Grapples with Divisive Challenges of Construction Safety Law

Exterior of construction site An apartment high-rise goes up in this undated photo.

NEW YORK CITY – It’s an emotional issue with more perspectives beyond what an initial glance may suggest. Despite its unanimous 42-0 City Council vote for approval, the law to increase mandatory construction safety training still has its opponents. Jaumaane Williams, who chairs the Housing and Building Committee and sponsored Bill 1447-C, calls it a landmark step to help ensure the safety of workers. But Real Estate Board of New York president John Banks argues the legislation fails to address concerns over access to training and costs, resulting in fewer construction job opportunities for New Yorkers.

Diverging views go beyond characterizations of worker protections pitted against management concerns over costs. A New York Amsterdam News article titled “MWBE Advocates Claim Intro. 1447 Shuts Blacks Out” reports minority and women business owners believe the bill adds another barrier for black and Latino workers who want construction jobs but lack union connections.

However, Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, calls the law “a historic moment in the fight for a safer workplace” and “a step in the right direction for improving worker safety and standardizing rigorous training in New York City.” The council consists of local affiliates of 15 national and international unions representing 100,000 men and women in the New York City region.

The Department of Buildings has on record the following numbers of fatalities during the construction of buildings in New York City since 2017:

2007 10
2008 19
2009   3
2010   4
2011   5
2012   8
2013   3
2014   8
2015 12
2016 12
2017   8
Total 92


The new law requires that workers on all construction sites greater than three stories receive a minimum of 40 hours of safety training with an eight-hour refresher course every five years, provided by Department of Buildings-approved trainers. Contractors will be responsible for ensuring training compliance, facing stiff financial penalties for each untrained worker.

Brian Gardner, chair of the Construction Service Department at Cole Schotz in New York City, does not support the law as passed. His law firm represents owners, developers, general contractors, construction managers, trade contractors, utility contractors, material suppliers, engineers, design professionals and bonding companies in construction matters. Having followed the developments in Bill 1447, Gardner questions how the City will implement its requirements.

“The idea of more safety training is easy to get behind. Everyone wants safer environments and fewer accidents,” Gardner says. “But I think it’s just an added layer of bureaucracy. The Department of Buildings is taking it over. There’s going to be a task force set up whose role is really only to advise on how to implement this. Who will pay for the training? Who is going to do the training?”

Gardner notes large construction companies will pay for their workers’ training but remains skeptical as to what will happen to workers without jobs, day laborers, and people at small companies.

Mayor Bill De Blasio’s office responded to GlobeSt.com, noting the law requires the City to develop a program that ensures equal access to training for day laborers and small contractors. The City plans to support programs for employees of small firms who cannot afford the additional expense of training, estimated to be approximately 46,000 workers. It has committed five million dollars in training funds, plus three to six million dollars for enforcement for the fiscal year 2018. The funds will be disbursed to day laborer centers and other training providers, including non-profits, community organizations, construction firms with 15 or fewer employees and CUNY-affiliates already engaged in OSHA construction safety training.

According to Gardner, the law heavily favors union workers by allowing training exemptions for those who have completed apprenticeships, offered by unions. He explains unions are not open organizations which people can easily join. Plus, undocumented workers are often not in unions and may be more hesitant to turn to a government agency for training. Gardner says construction jobs, even non-union ones, are not minimum wage positions. At twenty to twenty-five dollars per hour, they provide workers with the ability to support their families. He says although the law gives strong advantages to union members, it may have created unintended consequences from the City’s perspective.

In contemplating inclusiveness, the safety training task force will include representatives of labor unions, non-union industry workers, minority-owned or women-owned business enterprises and day laborers.

Gardner says he would like to see the removal of barriers of entry for construction workers, and if the City can make good on its proposed plans. He emphasizes construction accidents and deaths are not taken lightly but unleash devastating experiences for the families, co-workers, and people employed throughout the company. Next to payroll, insurance is the highest cost for construction companies, already creating deep financial incentives to prevent deaths. Although these fatalities are tragic, Gardner says statistically construction in the City of New York has not grown more dangerous in proportion to the amount of construction.

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