Agreement on Construction Workers’ Safety, but Not So Much on Bill

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When thousands of union workers gathered for a raucous rally near City Hall in late 2015, after a spate of deaths and injuries in construction accidents, they urged local officials to adopt stronger safety measures.

Within months, the City Council convened hearings. The Department of Buildings quadrupled fines in some cases. And a slew of bills intended to beef up safety eventually became law with little or no opposition.

But the most consequential piece of legislation, a bill requiring that every construction worker on projects over three stories receive 59 hours of safety training, has shown to be far more elusive.

This week, city officials acknowledged that a bill that supporters hoped would be passed in June, then July, then August, would be delayed again. And the bill’s foes — a diverse coalition led by real estate interests — gained another prominent voice Wednesday, when Representative Gregory W. Meeks, a Queens Democrat, announced his opposition because “it could take jobs away from minority construction workers and contractors.”

Now, with the City Council gearing up for primary elections in September, and preparing for a new group of legislators in January, supporters are hoping that a bill might be introduced in September, or October, though what the final proposal will look like remains unclear.

“We’ve heard the complaints, and some are valid and legitimate,” said City Councilman Jumaane D. Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat, the primary sponsor of the bill, known as Intro 1447. “The current bill is not the one we’re going to pass.”

The union that has become most closely associated with supporting the bill, the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, also sounded a cautiously optimistic, if frustrated, tone.

“Unfortunately, it has become an extremely contentious issue,” said Gary LaBarbera, the union’s president. “I don’t want to say that I’m overly concerned, but this is a very complicated matter, which will no doubt really impact the landscape of the industry going forward, as it should, in a positive way. Therefore, this has to be done right.”

Construction accidents have been climbing in recent years, with many of the victims being undocumented immigrants, sometimes poorly trained. A New York Times investigation in late 2015 into construction fatalitiesrevealed that the surge in deaths and injuries far exceeded the growth rate of new construction over a comparable period, and that in the cases in which workers died, supervision was inadequate, and basic steps had not been taken to prevent workers from falling. The investigation also found that because of the urgency to finish these projects as rapidly as possible, workers who often lacked adequate training had to take dangerous shortcuts.

As a result, most of the deaths were “completely avoidable,” federal safety investigators concluded.

So far in 2017, five construction workers have died, according toto the New York City Buildings Department. Twelve workers died in 2016, the same number as in 2015; there were eight deaths in 2014. Totals have not been that high since the previous construction boom, when 12 workers died in 2007 and 19 in 2008.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has said that the safety of construction workers is a top priority for his administration. In 2016, the city’s Department of Buildings quadrupled fines for the most common safety lapses, and later increased safety supervision at most major projects. And it looked as though there was a consensus on improving worker safety.

In early 2017, the City Council introduced a sweeping package of bills under the Construction Safety Act. By April, legislators had approved numerous measures, including one requiring the Buildings Departments to notify the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration of any potential worker safety violations it encountered, another requiring cranes to be equipped with global positioning systems or similar devices, and still another requiring site safety plans and a monitoring program for buildings taller than four stories.

The site safety provision had the backing of the powerful Real Estate Board of New York. But the board has been the most visible critic of Intro 1447 because of concerns over implementation, and the possibility that union workers who already receive safety training might be exempt from the new requirements, which, opponents say would unfairly advantage the unions.

The board has helped to organize a diverse coalition, called Putting New Yorkers to Work, which includes the New York state branch of the N.A.A.C.P. and housing groups, who are concerned that the proposal could disproportionately hurt small, minority-owned businesses. The group has spent more than $226,000 since Jan. 2016 on community relations and consulting, according to state records, and two weeks ago released two television ads.

“We support increasing safety at every construction site across New York City in a practical and feasible manner for both union and nonunion workers,” said John Banks, president of the Real Estate Board of New York.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/01/nyregion/construction-workers-safety-bill.html

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