Inspections Ordered after Hispanic Construction Workers Die

Mario Casas (center) (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

A year and a half after the New York City Council approved a law requiring all construction workers to have 40 hours of safety training by 2020, the recent fatalities in the industry has reignited the concerns of activists and workers. They insist that training makes all the difference and are urging local authorities and developers to expedite safety education programs.

The deaths last week of Gregory Echevarría, 37, who was crushed by a crane, Ecuadorean Nelson Salinas, 51, who died repairing the façade of a building, and Mexican Erik Mendoza, 23, who perished when he fell while working on the roof of a 13-story building in Brooklyn, are still under investigation. However, construction workers agree that safety training is essential to preventing hazardous situations during a particularly risky job.

In reaction to the serious incidents of the last few days, Acting Commissioner of the Department of Buildings (DOB) Thomas Fariello announced on Monday that the city will carry out thorough inspections of construction sites, aiming to guarantee that employers are not putting the lives and safety of workers at risk. The plan is to visit some 5,000 construction sites, and those failing to comply with safety rules may face fines of up to $25,000.

(…) “We find that most construction accidents could have been prevented with the proper site safety precautions. That is why we are sweeping construction sites across the city, and taking aggressive enforcement actions when we find these precautions are being ignored,” said Fariello.

(…) “Obviously, we are often afraid doing what we do, but when we have the necessary training, as is the case here, we can feel secure that nothing will happen to us,” said Andrés Silva, who is currently working in the construction of a building more than 30 stories high in Long Island City. “I have been working in construction for 20 years and can say that, when people are trained to manage their safety, the risks can be controlled.”

Andrés Silva (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

(…) José Yuquilema, who has been in the construction industry for six years, said that the duty to follow safety rules belongs mostly to workers, but pointed out that, in some cases, construction site managers do not assume their responsibility.

“When we have the training we need, things are safer. I do not feel unsafe at my job, but I think workers who have no training need to demand it, because we are talking about their lives,” said Yuquilema, born in Ecuador. (…).

José Casas, from Mexico, agrees. Having worked in construction for three years, he said that another important point is to work with the motto “take care of yourself and take care of co-workers.”

“We always work following the training they give us here, and part of our responsibility is to also look out for the others in case there are any incidents,” he said.

Roberto Thompson, another construction worker in Long Island City, Queens, said that, in his 10 years in the industry, he has learned that fines on employers will make them follow the rules more strictly.

“We know that we need to take care of ourselves and that you work better when you have the training. And we also know that you are going to get a $100 fine if you don’t wear a hard hat, and that you will be fined $500 if you don’t have gear and that the boss is going to have to pay for that, and no one wants to get on the boss’ bad side,” said the young worker.

Ecuadorean casualties

Lucía Gómez, a construction workers union leader, said that it is urgent for the city to enforce once and for all the law forcing construction site employers to provide safety training.

“The safety measures that were passed almost two years ago were supposed to be implemented gradually, and no one knows at what level this is happening. That needs to be a priority,” said the union leader, adding that the number of fatalities will continue to grow if no immediate action is taken. In the last 10 years, the number of construction site deaths totaled some 500.

“I believe that the three workers who died last week were not union workers. In cases like those, there is more carelessness, because many employers fail to provide the appropriate training, safety equipment and working conditions. It is unfortunate that most of these deaths were Hispanic and, in many cases, Ecuadorean immigrants. I can promise that if, God forbid, these laws are not enforced, this will continue to happen,” emphasized Gómez.

Because the Ecuadorean Consulate has identified that their compatriots constitute a significant part of New York City’s construction industry workforce, they have been offering free OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) safety training for several years.

(…) “It is always sad to see the frequency with which most calamities happen to our fellow Latinos, particularly to our Ecuadoran compatriots. That is easy to measure due to the accidents we have seen happening for a while, and what we want to do is prevent these situations by training and preparing them free of charge,” said Consul General of Ecuador in New York Linda Machuca.

“We also take the time to offer information about the construction industry, so they can learn and have a broader sense of their rights, even if they are in the country with an irregular status. We support them in cases when they have accidents and disasters at work, and when we learn that someone has lost their life and has no resources, the national government has a service to ship the remains [back home],” said the consul, adding that anyone interested in taking the training may sign up at the consulate’s community services office at 24-15 Queens Plaza North.

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