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Reducing construction deaths by holding contractors accountable

In just the past ten years, 500 New York construction workers have died on the job. The names of some of the victims appear in the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health's (NYCOSH's) annual report, Deadly Skyline. Among them are Hector, Alex, Igor, Lorenzo, Jeffrey, Paul, Juan, Frank, Fernando, Sharon, Jorge and many others. Their ages range from 21 years old (Alex) to over 60. Most are men, but some are women.

These are the names of people who needlessly lost their lives. Many, many more workers are injured every year.

Why so many deaths?

The report tells of Carlos, a 22-year-old immigrant who lost his life while working in an excavation. Carlos' death was the result of his employer's failure to follow safety guidelines. Unfortunately, his story isn't unique. It is a familiar tune for many who were injured or lost a loved one at a construction site.

Are construction companies skirting safety laws in order to increase profits? Are they properly training workers, or making dangerous safety assumptions? Are they checking their scaffolding, their machines and other equipment on a regular basis? Do employers even know what the laws are? These are the questions we must ask after the number of deaths continue to rise long after safety regulations were put in place.

What has been done to keep workers safe?

Numerous regulations are in place to protect construction workers. These regulations range from general guidelines on maintaining work equipment to specific requirements such as providing toe-boards and guardrails on elevated, open sided floors. Safety experts argue that these regulations should be enough to prevent most devastating work injuries. But if contractors fail to follow the safety guidelines, we must hold them accountable.

In an effort to do just that, the Manhattan District Attorney and NYCOSH have taken steps to hold contractors criminally liable for needlessly putting their workers' lives at risk. Similarly, The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) increased the penalties employers face for violating safety laws. New York's Scaffold Safety Law holds employers directly accountable for injuries at elevated workplaces.

What still needs to be done?

Other districts should follow suit to hold contractors criminally liable. Similarly, workers who are injured must come forward to tell their story and recover compensation for their injuries. It is illegal for an injured worker to face retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim. By holding employers accountable for every injury, we can help ensure they follow the safety rules. We can help reduce the number of serious injuries and deaths that plague the construction industry.

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