Joseph Endico doesn't remember the sound of the rope snapping. He
doesn't remember seeing his harness give way, or feeling his head hit
the ledge of the window as he fell three stories from the collapsing
scaffolding onto the grass below.
"I remember waking up on the ground a little while later with a towel
on my head, and people saying, 'you're going to be okay,'" Endico
recalled recently, the scar from the metal staples used to close his
wound still visible on his shaved head 19 months later.
Endico did survive and discussed the accident matter-of-factly as he
sat in his lawyer's office last week. But he is not okay. Still unable
to return to his job, Endico is living off of workers compensation,
with the help of his family.
He says he had never heard of another scaffolding accident before his
own, but that since his fall he notices them everywhere. Its not just
scaffolding: The most recent statistics count 29 construction related
deaths in the city in the year leading up to September 30, 2006, a 60
percent increase from the 18 deaths the year before.
In recent weeks public officials have taken several steps responding
to issues of workplace safety. Councilmember Erik Martin Dilan
introduced three bills specifically related to scaffolding safety,
following up on a mayoral taskforce. Governor Eliot Spitzer,
meanwhile, announced a plan to reform workers compensation so that it
better serves both injured workers and their employers, a balance that
evaded state policymakers for years.
MORE CONSTRUCTION, MORE DANGER
New York City's construction industry has become increasingly
dangerous as the city experiences an unprecedented building boom. The
city is issuing residential building permits at near record numbers,
and huge projects are being planned and constructed around the city.
(See slide show.) About 123,000 New Yorkers work in construction,
according to the New York Building Council, and the number of
construction jobs is increasing so rapidly that employers worry about
finding enough workers to fill them.
As the industry expands, its composition is changing. About half of
the construction workers in the city are immigrants, and over
one-quarter are not proficient in English. 75 percent of New York's
construction jobs remain unionized, four to five times the national
average. But with so much construction going on, the number of smaller
non-union employers is growing.
It is non-unionized immigrants working on smaller jobs who are being
injured in disproportionate numbers. Over half of the deaths over the
most recent year involved companies with fewer than 10 workers, and
almost three quarters of those killed were immigrants or workers with
limited proficiency in English.
Unionized employers take this as a sign that their fly-by-night
counterparts working smaller jobs should be subject to stricter
regulations. Larger construction sites are subject to more stringent
safety regulations. Any construction project with buildings over 14 stories tall
must keep a site safety coordinator on site at all times, for
instance, and companies building scaffolding over 40 feet tall must
apply for a building permit. Lou Coletti, head of the Building Trades
Employers' Association, an organization that represents union
employers building large projects, says that city officials would do
best to extend safety requirements to smaller, non-union employers.
"We know our members do it because we invest $50 million a year," he
said. "The non-union sector invests nothing."
Non-union immigrant workers are at the highest level of risk
Construction is a dangerous job, and workers at or below street level
are hardly immune to danger. A construction firm on Staten Island, for
guilty to negligent homicide last month after one of its workers was
buried when the trench he was working in collapsed. But city officials
are paying special attention to falls, particularly those relatd to
Falls are the most common cause of construction deaths in New York.
Locally, such deaths rose from nine to 17 over the last year. When
Mayor Michael Bloomberg planned City Hall's response to the increase in
construction deaths, his first target was hanging scaffolding. His
administration formed a task force to establish tougher regulations
and has adopted the recommendations it made in December.
Acting on these recommendations, the mayor has included $4 million
in his budget for the upcoming year to create a scaffolding safety
unit in the buildings department with 10 new inspectors to enforce
existing safety regulations. Another $2 million will be used for
training and outreach in Spanish, Chinese, Polish, Russian, and Urdu.
Councilmember Dilan, a member of the task
force, introduced three bills that would make several aspects of its
recommendations city law. They would require construction firms to
notify the buildings department when they plan to use C-Hook
scaffolding, a type of hanging scaffolding involved in over half of
the scaffolding deaths in 2006. His bills would also increase fines for
violators, and require daily written inspections of scaffolding by
The mayor also called on the federal government to increase its
investment in local Occupational Health and Safety Administration
inspectors. This echoes criticism from worker advocates who blame the lax approach of Bush administration
for the fact that 2004 was the first year in a decade in which the
nationwide workplace fatality rate actually rose. In its first five
years in office, the administration "failed to issue any significant
safety and health rules, compiling the worst record on safety and
health issues in [Occupational Safety and Health Administration]
history," according to the AFL-CIO report
Death On The
New York State fares better than most others, ranking ninth best in
terms of worker fatality rates and imposing harsher fees on
violators. Even so, the AFL-CIO calculates that if federal inspectors
in New York continue their work the current rate, it would take 99
years for them to visit each workplace once.
Joel Shufro, executive director of the non-profit advocacy group New York Committee
for Occupational Safety and a member of the task force, doubts
Bloomberg's calls for help from Washington will change this.
"[The mayor] would have to be demanding a different administration
with a different philosophy of enforcement," said Shufro. "This one,
in terms of safety on the job, is bankrupt."
AFTER THE FALL
Even for construction workers who survive, accidents on the job often
change their lives forever. Joseph Endico had been working on
construction sites for decades, and on scaffolding almost daily for
the three years leading up to the morning of June 24, 2004, when he
was asked to help install rubber waterproofing on the third story of
an apartment complex. There was a harness waiting for him on the
scaffolding as well as a rope grab, which serves as a backup if the
harness fails. He put them on.
During the part of the morning that Endico doesn't remember, one of
the frayed ropes holding up the scaffold he was standing on gave way.
His harness and rope grab failed in succession, and he fell three
stories, hitting his head on the way down.
The fall left him with a concussion, as well as serious injuries to
his back and neck. After a night in the hospital and six weeks at home
in bed, Endico started a physical therapy regimen that continues
today. He recently had surgery on his shoulder.
The benefits that workers like Endico are entitled to, and what legal
recourse they can take against their employers, have been perennial
sources of tension at the state level, where much of the regulations
regarding injured workers are written.
Today, Endico's only income is workers compensation, a benefit that he
will continue to receive as long as he is unable to work. Workers
advocates and employers alike have long complained about the state's
program. The $400 Endico receives weekly is the maximum benefit, even
though in his case it is about half his previous salary and does not
include health insurance. Despite the relatively meager payouts,
employers put more money into the program than almost anywhere else in
Bit despite such failings, changing workers compensation has long been bogged down in Albany. On the
last day of February, however, Governor Eliot Spitzer announced a
deal on workers compensation that he and other state officials brokered with labor and
business leaders. The agreement increases the maximum benefit to injured
workers, but caps the amount of time they can spend on workers
compensation, while also taking steps to cut down on fraud. Spitzer
estimates it will save $500 million a year, resulting in 10 to 15
percent lower premiums for employers.
Unrelated to the recent changes to workers compensation is a controversy over lawsuits involving those hurt on the job. Recipients of workers compensation are not allowed to sue their
employers. State law grants an exemption, however, to those who were
hurt in falls. Under this law, employers whose workers operate at
heights are liable for safety and cannot pass that liability on to
subcontractors. Lawyers and advocates representing injured workers
law saves lives by holding employers responsible. Employers are also
not allowed to argue that the workers own negligence caused an injury.
For over a decade, employers groups have been trying to get Albany to
repeal it, saying it raises construction costs and penalizes employers
for workers' mistakes.
"The employers hate it, hate it, hate it," said Shufro, "and the
lawyers love it, love it, love it."
Endico is suing his employer, Electchester Third Housing for damages
under this law. A lawyer for Third Housing declined to comment on the
specifics of the case for this article.
Endico said that he would like to see safety inspectors present on all
work sites at all times. He believes it is probably too late for him,
however, since his injuries will probably keep him from ever
returning to a construction site. Even if he were physically able,
Endico has developed a newfound fear of heights that would keep him from
the kind of work he had been doing all his life.
Today, even climbing the ladder to clean the gutters at his Throgs
Neck home seems like too much for Endico. He asks his nephew do it for
"I wouldn't go up no more," said Endico when asked about returning to
a construction site. "I counted on my harness. What would you count
on? It might fail again."
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