As a vertical oasis, New York City’s crowded streets and skyline almost always are riddled with the sights and sounds of new construction or renovation, whether it is the scaffolding you walk under or skeletal frames of new buildings rising. From new residential buildings and developments to trophy office facilities, the construction and renovation industry and the teams of workers that bring these projects to life remain an important and vital sector of New York City’s robust growth.
Despite its importance to the city’s economy, the construction of these iconic and world-renowned buildings and structures can place workers in harm’s way due to the nature of the work – lifting heavy objects, operating construction equipment and performing difficult jobs at elevated heights. Construction sites, in and of themselves, are inherently dangerous. Further, in order to reduce costs and meet deadlines, contractors and developers often expect workers to expedite projects with little regard for the safety protocols required at construction sites.
The combination of these elements, coupled with lack of education and the lack of communication or language skills of some workers in New York City, can result in dangerous accidents and the untimely and unnecessary loss of human life. But with the proper protocols and safety practices in place, the chances of injury to a construction worker or passerby can be significantly diminished.
To prevent an accident, regulations provide for the worker’s safety and also allow workers to pursue personal injury lawsuits to collect compensation for medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering and other damages. Workers are, for instance, entitled to worker’s compensation, regardless of fault. They also can sue third parties in the event of the wrongdoing of someone other than the worker or his employer. However, construction workers must educate themselves on what those regulations and protocols are, as well as learn more about the laws that exist to protect their rights if they become injured on the job.
Safety and Awareness
Construction accidents in many cases are avoidable and may result from negligent behavior from the contractor, developer or a third-party company involved in the project.
Take, for example, the crane collapse disaster that occurred in March 2008 in the Upper East Side of Manhattan; something few New Yorkers are able to forget. OSHA issued three willful citations to contractor Rapetti Rigging Services Inc. with penalties totaling $210,000 for allegedly failing, among other things, to comply with the crane manufacturer’s specifications and limitations when erecting and raising the tower crane, to protect synthetic rigging slings from damage, to inspect the slings for damage or defects before use and to remove a defective sling from service.
Straps holding the crane snapped under the weight of a 6-ton piece of steel as workers tried to “jump” the crane (extend the crane upward and anchor it to the building at the 18th floor of a high-rise apartment building), causing the crane to collapse, killing seven people and injuring 24.
William Rapetti, of Rapetti Rigging Services Inc., and his company were brought up on 40 criminal charges, including manslaughter. In July 2010, Justice Roger S. Hayes of State Supreme Court in Manhattan, who heard the case without a jury, acquitted Rapetti and his company of all charges.
In 2010, James Lomma, owner of New York Crane and Equipment Co., and a company employee were indicted for manslaughter. Lomma, whose companies have contracts at Ground Zero and dozens of other sites around the city, owned two massive tower cranes that collapsed in New York City in 2008 – including the one in March 2008 – killing a total of nine people.
Cases like this have brought increased scrutiny on the construction industry for its negligence in providing safe working environments for workers. For example, according to NYC Buildings Department statistics, from 2005-2006, approximately 47 workers were killed – including 26 who died in falls. Fortunately, there has been a dramatic decline in construction deaths over the past few years, with seven fatalities reported in the past 2 years, according to published reports.
Programs promoting safety awareness in the construction industry also have helped lower the fatality rate among construction workers. Now in its seventh year, the NYC Building Department’s Construction Safety Week aims to curb construction-related accidents and deaths by featuring a series of educational seminars for industry professionals on a variety of topics such as the prevention of accidents and safe scaffolding operations.
The overall reduction in the loss of life indicates that the construction industry is beginning to pay more attention to safety measures in work sites, a long overdue but positive step in the right direction.
New York State has some of the most protective laws in the country to protect construction workers from the negligent behavior of contractors and developers. For example, Labor Law section 240 (1) protects workers who fall from elevated heights – from places such as scaffolding or ladders – or when things fall on them from heights. This law imposes strict liability against both the building owner and the general contractor if a safety violation caused the injury. For example, if a worker fell from a scaffold, so long as he wasn’t responsible for his own fall or violating his employer’s safety policies, there would be liability. The owner has a non-delegable duty to maintain safety.
Injured construction workers can collect workers’ compensation benefits if they are injured on the job. But under the present system, who is entitled to collect what is ambiguous. For instance, an injured worker who is permanently partially disabled is eligible to collect lost income and medical coverage for the rest of his life. However, this benefit has not increased since 1982 and is not enough to compensate the loss.
Reforms seek to limit what partially disabled workers can receive, such as limiting reimbursement costs to no longer than 10 years, as compared to the present lifetime benefit. A proposed monthly maximum payment increase, meanwhile, still does not raise the amount of the reimbursement to two-thirds of the weekly average wage, as is standard in many states.
Supervisors are responsible for enforcing safety measures, but it is the contractor’s duty to ensure warnings are issued in hazardous areas. In cases of negligence by third parties, such as companies that manufacture construction equipment, these parties are liable if their products prove to be defective, as illustrated by the indictment of the crane owner in the 2008 crane collapse case in Manhattan.
Construction workers can protect themselves on the job first through increased education. Workers on any construction site should know the regulations and building codes of the city, state and federal government. Next, they should be proactive in protecting themselves by wearing and maintaining the proper safety equipment in the manner recommended by the manufacturer.
Workers also should not be afraid to speak up if they know safety requirements are not being met. They can contact organizations like OSHA to report unsafe conditions or equipment.
Finally, in the event that a work-related injury has occurred on site, workers can contact a personal injury attorney who is knowledgeable and experienced in pursuing claims against the contractor or developer who is responsible for the unsafe working conditions.
Lawrence B. Saftler is a New York-based personal injury attorney with a focus on plaintiff representation for construction accident claims and more.