Twenty construction workers died on the job in New York City in 2021, a new report finds, with the pace of fatalities rising back to pre-pandemic levels after a year of industry shutdowns.
The analysis of federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a worker safety watchdog group, makes year-to-year comparisons by looking at the death rate per 100,000 workers.
In 2021, the rate in NYC was 11.2 per 100,000. That’s a 60% increase from 7 deaths per 100,000 in 2020 — the year that COVID began and construction slowed — when 13 workers died. In pre-pandemic 2019, however, the rate was higher than 2021: 24 workers lost their lives on city construction sites, for a rate of 11.6 per 100,000.
The group’s executive director, Charlene Obernauer, said the 60% death rate rise was “startling” and “significant.”
“Construction workers should not have to kiss their loved ones goodbye in the morning, fearful to never return again,” Obernauer said. “Every number in this report represents a person with a family who should still be alive today. Their deaths were often gruesome, always heartbreaking, and preventable.”
Those who died in 2021 included Diego Rodríguez Celi, of New Jersey; Diego Lliguicota, of Maspeth, Queens; and Mauricio Sánchez, a Mexican laborer who perished when an elevator plummeted 75 feet to the ground at 20 Bruckner Boulevard, where he was the third worker to die in as many years.
Latino and non-union workers were most at risk of death, as they have been nearly each year since NYCOSH began issuing its annual report in 2014.
An estimated 10% of New York state’s workers are Latino, but Latino workers accounted for more than a quarter of workplace fatalities statewide. At the 15 sites OSHA inspected after a fatality in 2021, 80% of the workers were non-union.
For a three-month period from March to June 2020, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo mandated a pause on “non-essential” construction statewide. Many construction sites didn’t open back up right away even after the pause was lifted that summer, which helped drive construction deaths down that year.
The report also points to staffing deficiencies for local and federal regulators, with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) conducting 2,568 inspections in New York State in 2021 — down 42% from 2019.
The report cites a New York Times story about the 25% vacancy rate at the city Department of Buildings.
Andrew Rudansky, a spokesperson for the DOB, said the current agency-wide vacancy rate is 18%, but the vacancy rate among inspectors is at around 10%. A spokesperson for OSHA did not respond to a request for comment.
Obernauer said routine inspections help ensure employers know that regulators are watching.
“Whenever we see cuts to departments that are responsible for safety, we become worried that there will be fewer inspections, fewer enforcements, and as a result, there will be more injuries and more fatalities,” she said. “We want to make sure that the department is fully staffed so that it can do its job.”
Fatalities have persisted even as OSHA, the federal safety agency, has increased fines in line with inflation. The average fine amount reached $67,681 in 2021, up from $44,779 in 2020.
In December, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed Carlos’ Law, which will increase penalties for criminal corporate liability for the death or serious physical injury of an employee by up to $500,000. The bill was named after construction worker Carlos Moncoya, who died on the job in Manhattan in 2015.