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Mayor and Building Trades Near Deal on Safety Reforms Amid Increase in Construction Accidents

By Sally Goldenberg
06/05/2017 05:13 AM EDT
Mayor Bill de Blasio and construction union leaders, who have recently begun patching up their contentious relationship, are nearing a deal to dramatically increase worker training requirements in response to a recent uptick in injuries and deaths, according to multiple sources briefed on the potential agreement.
The proposal calls for all workers to be trained between 54 and 71 hours, with an extra 30-hour requirement for supervisors, according to a memo obtained by POLITICO. Certain workers would have to undergo even more “task specific training” totaling up to 242 hours, the three-page document shows. The city’s buildings department and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration would enforce most of the regulations.
Certain jobs would need training far in excess of current rules. Those working in “confined spaces” would be subject to between two and 16 hours of training — there is no current federal hourly requirement, according to the memo. Rigging safety and suspended scaffold supervisors would have to undergo 32 training hours; their workers would need half that.
The city would also require 10 hours for excavation, demolition and perimeter protection, listed as “additional proposed NYC specific training” in the memo.
Any changes which the mayor and union leaders agree to would require City Council legislation. The 51-member body recently passed a series of construction safety bills and is also negotiating the terms of increased worker training. Amendments to a prior bill addressing this issue are expected to be introduced in the next few weeks, the sources said.
The training requirements would be a boon for construction unions, which already provide certified courses and would be well-suited to fulfill these mandates and potentially outbid their nonunion competitors on projects. But the agreement deals them a blow by not mandating that workers go through an apprenticeship program — something many unions initially lobbied for before de Blasio publicly rejected it.
An apprenticeship mandate is anathema to real estate developers and contractors, who view it as a ploy by unions to bolster their membership since they run many such programs. For certain trades, nearly all state-certified apprentice training is affiliated with unions.
In a prepared statement, the Real Estate Board of New York expressed preliminary concerns about the training regulations being negotiated.
“We share the goal of the mayor and City Council that every construction worker goes home in the same condition that he or she arrived to the site,” board president John Banks said. “Additional safety training is clearly needed, but how much, for how long and by when are critical questions. It would be sad irony if otherwise-qualified, non-union construction workers and contractors who are also city residents are thrown off the job because of overly stringent requirements that don’t ultimately promote safety.”
Gary LaBarbera, president of the Great New York Building and Construction Trades Council, declined to comment for this story. Last week he emphasized the need for safety training during a panel discussion several hours before heading to City Hall to discuss the bill with de Blasio and the Council.
LaBarbera has said improved training would benefit all workers — not just those in unions he represents but undocumented immigrants who have been more at risk of serious accidents in recent years.
Earlier this year he said he wants an apprenticeship requirement or something tantamount to it, which was written into the original training bill in the Council.
“The reasons that there are this many fatalities is very, very fundamental. It is the lack of training. It’s not the lack of oversight. The only way that we are going to be able to save lives in this industry is by requiring training. I believe it should be apprentice training or the equivalent thereof,” he told the Commercial Observer in January.
But the mayor dismissed the idea as impractical, while also expressing frustration over the increase in worker fatalities.
The number of construction-related deaths depends on which agency is calculating it. The city’s buildings department recorded 24 fatalities in 2015 and 2016 — 11 workers each year and two passersby. But the city excludes from its count circumstances out of its purview, such as medical conditions or heat stroke. The New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health, by comparison, reported 25 construction fatalities in 2015, up from 17 in 2011.
De Blasio, a liberal Democrat, has been more closely aligned with the city’s powerful real estate industry than construction unions. He recently began trying to improve his relationship with the trades — announcing a “green jobs” deal with LaBarbera on Earth Day and speaking at the annual building trades conference in Florida for the first time in his mayoralty in March.

Meanwhile he is keenly aware of the safety concern posed by the city’s spike in development and is anxious to announce a plan to combat it, two sources close to the legislative negotiations said.

“Several people have said he yells at staff whenever a death occurs,” one source said.

It also behooves the building trades, which are always looking for a foothold in lucrative government projects, to make peace with City Hall.

A spokeswoman for the mayor, Melissa Grace, would not say how much the additional training requirements would cost the city or answer specific questions about the potential agreement.

“One construction death is too many,” she said. “We are working with stakeholders to ensure construction workers get the improved safety training they need, and to compel developers and construction companies to provide protections needed to prevent worksite injuries and deaths.”

Several Council members and real estate officials who would speak only on background said they are concerned that day laborers would have a hard time getting work if union courses are taught only in English and Spanish or require a GED.

“I would say that there’s no deal yet. I think there’s a framework coming together that folks are starting to agree upon, but there’s nothing final,” said Councilman Jumaane Williams, a sponsor of the legislation. “[Fellow Councilmember] Carlos Menchaca is one of the prime co-sponsors. He has been very adamant to make sure that day laborers are taken care of in this bill.”

Joshua Reap, spokesman for the New York chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, said any deal should include alcohol and drug testing for construction workers. He also said restrictions could limit opportunities for small companies and those run by minorities and women.

“If this is really about safety, we need to focus on a platform that works for everybody regardless of whether they’re open shop or they’re union,” he said. “It doesn’t reflect the realities of some smaller contractors and some hurdles to get the training.”

He said the deal, as he understands it, would be phased in over several years and may first apply to buildings 10 stories and taller, even though most accidents are documented at the sites of shorter buildings. Unions have been eager to require training programs on larger sites. The bill, however, is likely to target all job sites.

“Making construction sites safer is of paramount importance to the City Council and that’s why we’re proud to have passed six safety bills in April as part of the Construction Safety Act,” Council spokeswoman Robin Levine said. “We are in ongoing conversations with stakeholders and the administration about (this legislation) and continue to explore next steps.”

This article first appeared in POLITICO