Incredibly, feds and the state government disagree.
A young father works a shift under conditions of extreme heat, collapses and dies in Brooklyn after clocking out. In the wake of this tragedy, New York City neither investigated nor counted Alton Louis’ death in their statistics of workplace fatalities.
The Department of Buildings is the state agency tasked with regulating construction safety. The department’s position has been that it only looks into fatalities that involve building code violations. Since Mr. Louis had completed his shift and died his death was likely related to a heat-related issue, his death did not count as a workplace fatality.
Numbers impact investigations and regulations
During 2015, the Department of Buildings counted only 12 of the reported 18 construction-related fatalities, which included a passerby killed by falling debris. The people who lost their lives on the job, but were not counted, include a veteran, a construction safety worker, an ironworker and a truck driver.
While many consider a death a death, the Department of Buildings doesn’t see it that way. They limit their tally to fatalities that pose a threat to public safety. In other words, it counts instances that could create a danger to the public and workers. Although OSHA has cited employers in undocumented deaths, the department continues to operate under criteria that may be too narrow to adequately support overall worker safety interests.
Likewise, the Department of Investigation’s Construction Deaths Task Force failed to look into four of the six omitted fatalities. When Mr. Louis died while working on the top floor of an affordable housing development, OSHA cited the company because the temperature had risen as high as 105 degrees and it had no heat safety plan in place.
And while OSHA has been more thorough, its implementation has raised a few eyebrows as well.
In all but one instance of significant violations, OSHA has cited nonunion contractors. Representatives argue that union shops meet safety standards because workers have a greater sense of protection. If a job or practice appears dangerous or below code, they can decline to perform a task until their shop steward is consulted. Nonunion workers may feel more pressure to comply even when not comfortable for fear of losing their job. Nonunion groups argue that the growing number of violations is merely due to an increased slice of the labor pie.
Regardless of the criteria used to track workplace fatalities, safety should be paramount for the feds, state agencies and employers alike. At the end of the day, workers lives are on the line.