NYC Construction Death Toll Hit 24 in ’22, New Report Finds

Building trades union members held a vigil after construction worker Raúl Tenelema Puli’s was crushed by a scaffold at a Downtown Brooklyn development, Nov. 3, 2022. Credit: George Joseph/THE CITY

By Claudia Irizarry Aponte | February 13, 2024

Twenty-four construction workers died on the job in New York City in 2022, according to a new report, up from 20 the previous year.

The 10th annual analysis of federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a worker safety watchdog group, makes year-to-year comparisons by looking at the death rate per 100,000 workers.

In 2022, the rate in New York City was 11.5 per 100,000, up from 11.2 in 2021. Fatalities are now back up to levels of pre-pandemic 2019, the report shows.

Behind the statistics, each death is “a worker who had a family, who was a loved one in their community, who lost their lives,” said Charlene Obernauer, executive director of NYCOSH.

“Every single time it does not cease to amaze me how preventable these injuries and fatalities are, and how every single one is connected to a worker who has a story, who’s had a full life before that moment, when their life was put to an end as a result of unsafe construction sites,” she said.

Those who died in 2022 include 27-year-old Raúl Tenelema Pulí of Corona, Queens, and Jeremy Rozan, 34, of Staten Island, who died within days of each other on separate job sites.

Tenelema Pulí, who was a performer with a Ecuadorian folk dance group, was installing a sidewalk shed in preparation for construction of an apartment tower downtown Brooklyn when he fell 20 feet to his death on Nov. 2. That building, a project of the Rabsky Group, is now nearing completion.

A day earlier, Rozan, a father of three, was helping shore up the Roosevelt Avenue overpass near Citi Field when he stepped through a piece of plywood that gave way and plummeted to the Van Wyck Expressway below, where he was hit by a passing driver.

A member of the Structural Steel & Bridge Painters of Greater New York Local Union 806, he was described by friends as “the most loving, fun spirited, good-hearted, caring person ever.”

But non-union workers are disproportionately at risk of death: At the 39 sites OSHA inspected after a fatality in 2022, 90% of the workers were non-union.

Short Staffing

The report also found staffing deficiencies for local and federal regulators. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted 3,183 inspections in 2022 – 29% fewer than in pre-pandemic 2019.

OSHA’s average fine for construction firms found responsible for fatalities decreased from $67,681 in 2021 to $59,075 in 2022 — ending a five-year trend of increases, according to NYCOSH.

Construction workers erect a mixed-used residential building on Fulton Street at the border of Fort Greene and downtown Brooklyn.

Construction workers erect a mixed-used residential building on Fulton Street at the border of Fort Greene and Downtown Brooklyn, Feb. 12, 2024. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Six months after Tenelema Pulí’s death, Nunez Consulting Services Corp., a subcontractor overseeing the construction of the 35 story high-rise, was initially hit with fines totaling $128,132 and later settled with OSHA for a $90,000 penalty, records show. OSHA found that Nunez had failed to provide fall protection for workers.

Nuco Painting, a Long Island-based company specializing in industrial painting and steel repair, was fined $22,876 in connection with Rozan’s death, records from OSHA show. Nuco is still contesting OSHA’s proposed penalty.

OSHA spokesperson Edmund Fitzgerald said in a statement that the agency would not comment on NYCOSH’s report because it had not seen it, but that it shared the organization’s “desire to improve worker safety and health.”

The agency, he added, “seeks to educate workers and employers about their workplace rights and obligations, enforce workplace safety and health regulations and standards and focus attention on protecting vulnerable workers and holding recalcitrant employers responsible.”

The report also cites data from the city showing that in October 2022 the Department of Buildings, which handles safety enforcement for structures built for occupancy, had the highest job vacancy rate of the city’s largest agencies and the fourth-highest vacancy rate overall at 22.7%.

DOB spokesperson Andrew Rudansky noted that field inspections increased 2% over the first four months of the 2024 fiscal year compared to the previous year, and that the agency’s vacancy rate is now 10%.

He also said that a majority of on-the-job deaths mentioned in NYCOSH’s report occurred outside of the agency’s jurisdiction, such as health-related ailments or accidents on state or federal property.

“Thanks in part to our robust enforcement of the city’s construction safety regulations, DOB has made critical strides toward reducing the number of building construction-related fatalities, which have dropped to seven in calendar year 2023, the lowest number in nine years,” Rudansky said in a statement. “We are proud of the progress we have made to reduce building construction fatalities in New York City, and we also recognize that there is still work to be done to continue driving that number down.”

Last month, Deputy Mayor Meera Joshi said that while the DOB is not immune to cuts outlined in the city’s preliminary budget, the Adams administration “made a special exemption for our building inspectors and so the cuts that DOB felt did not impact to the degree their building” inspections.

“The purpose of this report is not to shame agencies, it’s not to say, ‘you all are doing something terribly wrong,’” said Obernauer. “It is to say that we need to be analyzing this data, and we need to be talking about what policy solutions there are to a potential further increase in fatalities in construction.”

This story was published by THE CITY on February 13, 2024.

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