worker safety

One-Third of Construction Deaths Logged by Feds Go Uncounted by City

Carlos Gabrielli with his family before he died last year in a work accident.
Carlos Gabrielli with his family before he died last year in a work accident. Photo: Courtesy of Carla Patricia Gabrieli

Construction laborer Carlos Gabrielli died on the job, after cutting through a city sewer in a Staten Island road.

The 50-year-old father of three was working from a hole too small to give him enough room to maneuver a 14-inch rapid-cut saw, according to his family’s lawyer.

The saw kicked back and slashed Gabrielli’s unprotected throat on Aug. 10, 2018.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration deemed his death a construction-related fatality. All told, the agency counted 18 such deaths in New York City in 2018.

But the Department of Buildings, charged with making safer the city’s most lethal industry, did not include six of the deaths in its count last year. The city department tallied 12 construction fatalities for 2018, categorizing the others as outside its purview.

“They are just trying to hide statistics,” said Andrew Calcagno, who is representing the Gabrielli family against the construction firm E.E. Cruz & Co. and the saw manufacturer, Husqvarna.

“It’s 100% a construction-related death,” he said.

Rules Impact Tally

In order for a death to make the Department of Buildings’ list, the incident must take place on a construction site and involve a building code violation, the agency says.

That leaves out fatalities that primarily involve employer health and safety issues, such as the 2015 death of construction worker Alton Louis from heat exhaustion he suffered on a publicly backed affordable housing site in Williamsburg.

If a death does not involve a building code violation, as in construction worker Christian Ginesi’s 24-story fall down an elevator shaft at a midtown hotel site, it does not make the city’s tally.

In four of the six cases counted by OSHA but not the city last year, the Buildings Department was not called to the scene and did not conduct on-site inspections immediately following the incidents.

In two cases — one in which a worker repairing a roof drainage system plunged from a scaffold, and another in which a worker fell while replacing a gutter — the Building Department’s Emergency Response Team was called and did an inspection. But the deaths were not counted because the work on the buildings did not require agency permits.

The Buildings Department says that between various government agencies, worker deaths are “thoroughly investigated.”

“OSHA has primary responsibility for worker safety and we work closely with them, across jurisdictional lines, to enhance enforcement strategies for all serious incidents that occur on construction sites,” Joseph Soldevere, a Buildings Department spokesperson, said in a written statement. “OSHA investigated the six incidents last year that were not in DOB’s jurisdiction and, where appropriate, took enforcement actions to hold the employer accountable.”

Reporting Law Regularly Flouted

After Crain’s New York Business first reported on the Buildings Department’s method of counting in 2016, the City Council passed a law intended to ensure that the city government would make public all construction-related deaths.

But that law relied on building owners and contractors to report deaths at their sites. As THE CITY revealed last week, only one, a general contractor, reported a death last year.

Health and safety experts contend that an effective city-level approach to worker safety would start with a comprehensive analysis of the problem.

“It makes no sense if they’re dealing with having any kind of safety program, if they decided not to count all the deaths,” said Deborah Berkowitz of the National Employment Law Project. “You can’t do safety a quarter of the way or halfway.”

Construction workers finish a day of laboring at a midtown site on Broadway and 30th Street, May 7, 2019.
Construction workers finish a day of laboring at a midtown site on Broadway and 30th Street, May 7, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The Buildings Department’s primary focus has long been on making sure that buildings are structurally sound and that worksites meet the city building code. But in recent years, the agency’s role has expanded to include some elements of worker safety.

Soldevere pointed to initiatives that include inspector sweeps, required training and toughening up on “bad actors” as examples of the department’s worker safety efforts.

The Buildings Department currently has no one with an occupational health background on staff, he confirmed, adding that the agency is trying to hire someone.

In March, OSHA closed its investigation into Gabrielli’s death and fined E.E. Cruz & Co. $13,260 for failing to make sure its worker was protected from the saw’s kickback.

The firm had been enlisted by the city’s Department of Design and Construction to install sewers and water mains at Fiske and Maine avenues.

Gabrielli, originally from Brazil, worked for the construction firm for 11 years. If not for the tragedy, family lawyer Calcagno said, “The man would be alive and with his three kids.”

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