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Construction deaths are up, so why are OSHA fines so low?

As we've discussed in recent months, a damning report from the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) has found some distressing - and deadly - trends in the construction industry in New York. According to the report, entitled Deadly Skyline, New York construction fatalities have increased by almost 30 percent in the last five years, with a record-breaking 71 construction worker deaths reported in 2016 alone.

This alarming upward trend begs the question: what can be done to stop it? One solution proposed is to increase enforcement of existing construction laws and compliance, a job often done by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). However, OSHA seems to have abandoned its post, at least according to the NYCOSH report. The question then becomes: why?

Underfunding may be one reason

The Deadly Skyline authors speculate that part of the problem may be lack of funding and support for OSHA over the last decade. Since 2010, OSHA's budget has remained fairly consistent at around $550 million, despite national increases in construction employment numbers and inflation.

The administration also implemented a national hiring freeze this year, meaning that the current ratio of one OSHA inspector for every 76,000 workers will remain the norm for the foreseeable future. This may not seem problematic until you realize that international construction standards dictate that countries should hire one labor inspector per 10,000 workers.

Moreover, a proposal from the federal House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies would slash OSHA's budget by $7.5 million for fiscal year 2019. The bill passed committee hearings and is currently awaiting a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.

These past and future cuts, the NYCOSH report argues, reduces OSHA's ability to perform routine inspections and surprise inspections in New York and across the nation. Therefore it may come as no surprise that OSHA inspections in New York have fallen a whopping 62.6 percent in the last 20 years. As many studies have shown, increased inspections means increased compliance with safety standards - and therefore less construction accidents and workplace fatalities. Without them, workplace accidents may just keep rising.

The easy way out

Another more insidious reason could be lack of will. In August 2016, OSHA successfully lobbied to increase its fines by 78 percent, the first increase since 1990. However, as the Deadly Skyline report found, the organization has failed to take advantage of this new strategy to enforce construction safety.

In fact, OSHA fines have decreased by 7 percent since 2016 in New York. OSHA's fines in the state have continued to average out around $20,000. It would seem that despite its new abilities, the organization still prefers to settle claims for low-ball amounts rather than take negligent contractors and real estate developers (with multibillion-dollar revenues) to task.

Is there a way forward?

Given these depressing statistics, it's tempting to wonder what more can be done to improve construction worker safety in New York. One solution might be to increase support of local and state governments, construction unions and other locally based organizations dedicated to protecting worker safety. Such organizations and laws (like New York Labor Laws §240 and §241 and the recently passed NYC Local Law 196) can hopefully fill in the gaps OSHA has left open.

The other thing injured constructions workers and their families can do is to continue holding negligent general contractors and employers legally and financially accountable. You deserve to work in an industry that puts your personal safety and that of your coworkers first. Sometimes accidents do happen, but in many cases, they could have been prevented with proper compliance.

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