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Sampson Quoted: No Pause In Construction Despite NYC Having World's Worst Air Quality

June 8, 2023 Ciara Long, Bisnow New York City 

As thick billows of smoke from wildfires in Canada turned New York City’s air into a hazardous haze on Wednesday, construction work pressed ahead.

The view of the New York City skyline from Hoboken on Wednesday, June 7, 2023.

The air quality index hit its worst-ever level in the city Wednesday, with The City reporting that NYC’s AQI, a measure of harmful PM2.5 particulates, hit 484. A score of 300 or above is deemed unhealthy by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Work continued on job sites throughout New York City on Wednesday, including on city-funded construction sites like schools and hospitals, a local construction union official, who was not authorized to comment publicly, told Bisnow by email.

“The whole state smells like a campfire right now,” Brian Sampson, the Empire State chapter president of Associated Builders and Contractors, said Wednesday evening. “It’s hazy, it’s cloudy, this morning it felt like a scene out of The Walking Dead.”

Sampson had been talking to construction firms and workers most of the day as part of his role at ABC, which has some 22,000 members nationally. Construction sites across New York state had taken a case-by-case approach to determining if it was safe to continue working, which was appropriate given the circumstances, he said.

“It’s a really strange situation. You don't often come across such dense smoke warnings. It's certainly a little thicker down here than it was upstate," he said after driving to the city from Rochester and Syracuse earlier in the day.

First thing in the morning, site supervisors began by handing out masks to construction workers, who could wear them if they wished, Sampson said. Some encouraged workers with pre-existing conditions, like asthma or lung conditions, to take the day off work if needed, checked in with workers at a higher frequency than normal and told people to go home if they felt like they needed to.

“Earlier in the week, upstate had it worse than downstate, and now it’s flip-flopped,” he said. “It's really up to [contractors] to choose what they want to do and how they want to do it.”

Officials in New York appeared to be caught off-guard by the smoke.

“We also haven't seen levels rise this quickly, this suddenly over the last 24 hours, almost ever, because frankly, we don't get wildfire smoke here in this way like this,” Ashwin Vasan, commissioner for the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said at a press conference Wednesday.

Work continuing on construction sites amid alarming air quality levels due to wildfires is not unusual. Construction work stoppages were not enacted in Western states including Washington, Oregon and California during wildfire season until the AQI reached more than 600, Construction Dive reported.

As of last month, Washington state inched closer to issuing regulatory action. Its Proposed Wildfire Smoke Permanent Rules — now in the public comment period, and similar to requirements in Oregon and California — would apply to workers in construction, agriculture and other outdoor jobs.

If Washington’s rule is approved as it stands, it would require workers to wear respirators if the AQI is over 500, levels that the EPA categorizes as hazardous, in addition to a workplace respiratory protection program.

Wildfire smoke blanketed Manhattan during the day on June 7, 2023.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul advised New Yorkers Wednesday to stay indoors if possible, to wear a mask if they had to go outside, and to avoid strenuous physical activity outside. One million N95s were made available for members of the public across the state on Wednesday, Hochul’s office announced.

“I want to be clear,” Adams said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. “While there may be potential for significantly improved conditions by Friday morning, smoke predictability that far out is low. It is difficult to predict the movement of this smoke.”

The city suspended alternate-side parking for Thursday, closed public beaches for the afternoon, advised schools to stop outdoor activities for their students for the afternoon and canceled outdoor events.

The smoke also disrupted business as usual in the city: Flights at LaGuardia airport were grounded due to poor visibility, and the airport only lifted its ban on planes landing as of 11 a.m. Thursday.

In NYC, the Department of Buildings issued an air quality health advisory specifically to construction workers Wednesday.

“New Yorkers, including construction industry members, are advised that they should take necessary precautions & limit outdoor activity. Wearing N95/KN95 masks when outside is recommended,” one such advisory from Wednesday, distributed via the agency’s Twitter feed, reads.

The advisory was still in place as of Thursday morning, per the NYC DOB.

Guidance from the New York State Department of Labor to industries whose workers largely perform manual labor outdoors — including construction — was “an announcement encouraging employers in regions with Air Quality Health Advisories in effect to limit outdoor work and activities that require exertion.”

Industry bodies, including the NY Building Congress, told Bisnow that they were following the guidance from state and local regulators.

NY Building Congress President and CEO Carlo Scissura said in a statement that its members throughout the region were monitoring the situation and taking precautions “based on the information and guidance provided by experts and our City and State leaders.”

New York state didn't issue guidance about additional precautions to construction firms for outdoor workers, Associated General Contractors of America told Bisnow in an email. Hochul’s office didn't respond to a request for comment.

“We have not issued any new guidance largely because in reaching out to our members it was clear that they had already shared guidance with their teams and subcontractors,” Brian Turmail, ACG’s vice president for public affairs and strategic initiatives, told Bisnow in an email.

What actions construction firms chose to take varied by organization, he said, but the common thread among them was a focus on monitoring their workers’ health and moving people indoors if they were having trouble breathing.

“FWIW, we don’t issue guidance to our western members when they deal with similar conditions on practically an annual basis either,” he wrote.

On Thursday morning, the AGC sent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance to its members, after some on the East Coast asked what the protocol is out west.

“They haven't faced something like this on the East Coast,” Turmail said. “As of this morning, OSHA hadn’t sent out any guidance, so we wanted to give out some guidance.”

Construction workers are frequently in dangerous conditions and accustomed to wearing masks and protective gear, but Gary LaBarbera, president of the New York State Building Trades Council, said the organization sought the advice of Dr. Kenneth Spaeth, division chief of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Center at Northwell Health, as well as from industry stakeholders.

“Maintaining the health and well-being of our members is of utmost importance,” LaBarbera said in a statement on Wednesday. “We have relayed the health risks associated with an air quality index of over 150 to our members and have requested that employers provide N95 masks to those working on outdoor projects.”