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Amid a building boom, construction deaths soar in NYC

Many immigrants do not understand safety warnings

Workers learned safety procedures at a suspended-scaffolding training class in Queens. Construction is the most dangerous work in the United States, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Scaffolds cover thousands of New York buildings. Workers learned safety procedures at a suspended-scaffolding training class in Queens. Construction is the most dangerous work in the United States, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Scaffolds cover thousands of New York buildings. (Seth Wenig/associated press)

NEW YORK - Sucha Ram was getting ready to tar the roof of a building in the Bronx last year when he fell over the side, plunging 15 feet to his death. He was not wearing any fall-protection gear and had never received formal training in fall hazards, a report said.

Ram was a 52-year-old immigrant from India, the sole breadwinner of the family - and part of a long line of casualties of New York City's roaring construction industry in 2006.

Forty-three people died while working construction in New York in 2006, the deadliest year in at least a decade in the city, according to recently released data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The death toll was up 87 percent from 2005, when 23 people died. Nationally, construction deaths in 2006 rose just 3 percent.

The rise in New York vastly exceeds what happened in other big cities. The Los Angeles area recorded 33 deaths in 2006, versus 35 in 2005, the bureau said. The Miami area had 34 deaths, compared with 26 the previous year.

Construction is the most dangerous work nationally, accounting for 1,226 fatalities in 2006, or 21 percent of the 5,703 workplace deaths overall, according to the bureau.

New York construction workers and safety specialists point to the city's unprecedented building boom as a reason for the jump. Scaffolds cover the facades of thousands of buildings. Major developments are going up in every borough. Apartment buildings and high-rise condos are being built at a frenetic pace.

"It spiked because the work spiked," said Dennis Holloway, director of the John B. Scola Training Center in Queens, which trains union bricklayers and other construction workers.

The city has seen a big influx of immigrants at the same time as the construction boom, compounding the problem. That means there are more immigrant construction workers who do not speak English and might not comprehend safety warnings.

Oscar Paredes, executive director of the Latin American Workers Project, said outreach and training by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and city agencies are ineffective because of the language barrier.

"The city government doesn't have a lot of people who speak the language or that can offer the appropriate training," he said.

Paredes said some workers ignore safety precautions, sometimes because they are apathetic, or sometimes because they are afraid to lose their job if they refuse to perform a dangerous task, such as scaling heights with no harnesses or guardrails.

"If you don't go up, you lose the work," he said.

The government does not break down workplace deaths by immigration status, so it is difficult to know how many involve illegal immigrants.

But a review of federal data from 1997 to 2006 illustrates powerful trends. In that period, there was a more than 260 percent increase in construction deaths in the city involving Hispanics, the largest and one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in New York. Six Hispanics died in 1997 working construction, 22 in 2006.

A review of 2006 OSHA reports on New York construction fatalities obtained by the Associated Press through a Freedom of Information Act request showed that deaths followed a pattern. An internal report by OSHA's Manhattan office echoed the findings.

Workers were more likely to die on construction jobs if they were foreign-born, Hispanic, spoke a language other than English, or worked for a nonunion crew. They were also more likely to die from falls.

Mostly, the workers fell because they had no safety gear or it was not being used properly. Often, those who died had little or no safety training.

Some victims were crushed to death in building or trench collapses, or struck by falling debris. Some were electrocuted. A few were burned alive.

In one of the more detailed reports, Miczyslaw Piatek, 52, was killed when a 10-foot cinderblock wall from an adjacent property collapsed on him as he labored in an excavated plot.

The owner of the company that hired Piatek, Wojciech Napieralski, told investigators that he had never performed underpinning, which was required for the wall on the adjacent property. Napieralski said he knew how to do the work from studying information on the Web, talking to other people, and because he is "a logical thinker."

"I'm very good at what I do," he told an investigator.

In an accident on June 6, 2006, three employees from a different company were spraying highly flammable waterproofing liquid onto the walls of a small concrete pool in the basement of a Brooklyn house when the chemical exploded. A 30-year-old man was killed and two other workers were seriously burned.

Half a dozen contractors that managed sites where construction workers died refused to comment, as did their lawyers.

Construction workers and specialists agree that a lack of training, especially for immigrants who do not speak English, plays a big role in the number of deaths.

"You have to remember that the percentage of construction workers that are Hispanic or Mexican is growing leaps and bounds," said Michael McCann, director of safety research for the Center to Protect Workers' Rights in Maryland. "That's getting to be a training issue."

Because of the many construction accidents, New York City has dedicated $6 million to a scaffold safety team of seven inspectors - with plans to recruit three more - and two chiefs. They are dispatched to construction hotspots.

"This enables us to ensure proper means and methods are being employed before it's too late," said Robin Brooks, the buildings department's spokeswoman.

Ram's oldest daughter, 16-year-old Gurpreet Kaur, said thinking about her father's fall on Oct. 5, 2006, still makes her angry. "You shouldn't have to work on the roof when you're not safe enough," she said by phone from her family's home in Upper Darby, Pa.

The company that hired her father is run by a family friend, Ram Sandhu, out of Queens. In an interview with an OSHA investigator, Sandhu said that "the employees had no health and safety training, especially in fall protection."

According to OSHA, he agreed to put his employees and himself through safety training and to pay fines totaling $8,625 for various violations.

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