Construction workers (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)
UPDATE, 8/1/22: After this article was published, the Department of Labor website was updated with a Construction Worker Fatality Registry, which reports three deaths since February 2022 in Nyack, Newburgh, and Jamestown. One union and one non-union worker fell to their deaths and another non-union worker was struck and killed by an object, according to the registry. None of the fatalities on New York City job sites have been reported. The website notes the database contains "the most up-to-date information reported to the Department of Labor by county coroners, medical examiners, and other authorized officials as mandated by law. This database is updated as reports are submitted to the Department of Labor."
New York State has failed to launch a registry of construction site fatalities after lawmakers passed and the governor signed legislation last year to require the reporting on one of the most dangerous industries in the state.
Between 40 and 70 people are killed in New York each year working on construction sites, where the risk of falling from a great height or being crushed by heavy machinery is high. Four out of five deaths are on non-union worksites and one in five workers killed are Latino, despite Latinos accounting for only one in ten construction workers statewide. In the first year of the pandemic, the per capita on-the-job death rate of workers increased even as the number of construction projects dropped.
A state law passed in early 2021 required contractors, coroners, and medical examiners to report construction site fatalities to the state Department of Labor and for the agency to publish that information in a public database. Advocates for workers said the registry would shed light on a dark corner of the construction industry and help expose employers with chronic safety issues.
The law required the state to launch the registry a year after its February 2021 signing by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo, and for it to record deaths occurring since it was signed into law.
According to a tracker of construction worker deaths compiled by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), an advocacy group for workplace safety, at least 11 people have died on worksites in New York City alone since the registry law was signed.
This February, the Department of Labor launched a website apparently to house the registry but never uploaded the database. No deaths have been reported despite at least two workers – Alexander Gabatashvili on Staten Island and Holger Molino Pinos in Queens – dying in New York City since the website went up.
A Department of Labor spokesperson said the reason it has not reported any deaths is because no deaths have been reported to the agency. "Since the passage of the bill requiring the establishment of a construction fatality registry, no fatalities have been reported to the New York State Department of Labor," the spokesperson wrote in an email following a Gotham Gazette inquiry.
In that period, another government agency, the New York City Department of Buildings, reported in its public 2021 Construction Safety Report the deaths of eight workers killed on job sites in 2021.
The Department of Labor website was recently updated to add information for contractors, medical examiners, and other mandated reporters about when and how to file a report. But in a July 8 letter to DOL Commissioner Roberta Reardon that was shared with Gotham Gazette, State Senator Jessica Ramos, a Queens Democrat who introduced the legislation to create the registry, expressed concern that DOL was not conducting adequate training or outreach to inform them of their new responsibilities.
"Having this information available is critical to ensure that contractors who repeatedly engage in substandard safety practices are tracked and monitored in the official public record," wrote Ramos, who chairs her chamber’s labor committee and represents a heavily Latino district home to many construction workers.
"Efforts are underway to better educate contractors, medical examiners, and coroners about their responsibilities when a construction fatality occurs," wrote the Department of Labor spokesperson, declining to provide an attributable name. "We have been sharing widely our webpage that details when, how, and what to report in the event of a worker death." When asked where the agency had advertised the website, the spokesperson wrote, "Outreach to mandated reporters is ongoing," but provided no specifics.
Ramos' letter criticized the delay and questioned what the agency was doing to fulfill its mandate.
"This registry is to be maintained by DOL, and the updated information should be accurately published and accessible as of its effective date,” Ramos wrote. “However, the Workplace Fatalities Registry has yet to reflect an accurate list of fatalities that have occurred and is currently nonexistent on the DOL website.”
"This also leads me to assume no fines have been levied against contractors who have failed to report fatalities," the letter reads.
Under the law, contractors can incur a fine of $1,000 to $2,500 for failing to report a worksite fatality. When asked by Gotham Gazette whether any contractors had been penalized under the law, the DOL spokesperson wrote, "The DOL is in the process of exercising our authority under state law to potentially fine mandated reporters who fail to submit this data."
According to Ramos' office, DOL has not responded to the senator's letter.
"There is no doubt that the DOL is not in compliance with the law to report on these fatalities in a searchable database," wrote NYCOSH executive director Charlene Obernauer, in an email to Gotham Gazette. "For watchdog organizations like NYCOSH, it makes it more difficult for us to advocate when we don’t have accurate information about fatalities that occur."
This year, state legislators passed Carlos' Law, which would expand the criminal liability of employers for endangering workers when someone is injured or killed on the job. The act is named for Carlos Moncayo, a 22-year-old non-union worker who was crushed to death when the walls of a trench collapsed on a construction site in Manhattan's Meatpacking District in 2015. The incident occurred seven years to the day before Molina Pinos was killed falling down a shaft on a site in Ridgewood, Queens.
A spokesperson for Governor Kathy Hochul said she is reviewing the bill; it is among hundreds awaiting her signature or veto.
Obernauer said the fatality registry could help advocates and lawyers track unscrupulous contractors across multiple unsafe job sites in order to hold them to account under Carlos' Law. "Advocates might be able to do research on employers that have multiple fatalities on different job sites or make overall analyses about safety on job sites if given access to this information," she wrote.
"In short, without data, it’s difficult to make smart policy decisions because we just don’t know what’s going on."
Update: Governor Hochul signed Carlos' Law on December 23, 2022.
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette