Nine people died in two Manhattan crane collapses this spring. But what’s the fatality rate? Neither the press nor Mayor Michael Bloomberg has offered helpful data to help answer that question. Bloomberg says that “construction is a dangerous business and you will always have fatalities”—not a signal that he’s demanding huge decreases. The media keep mentioning that we’re in a building boom, as if the death rate should stay constant or go up as construction activity increases.
The opposite is true. The more we do something, the better we should get at it, thanks to technology, regulation, and experience. More Americans spend more time in cars than in the mid-sixties, but the death rate per miles traveled has fallen by three-quarters. Airline activity has hit record levels, yet flying has never been safer.
But in construction, New York hasn’t made strides in getting the death rate down over the past decade, even though the experience we’ve gained should have helped. While data on individual years are subject to big swings, the city averaged 24.6 yearly deaths per 100,000 construction workers from 1998 through 2000, and 27.2 from 2004 through 2006 (the last year for which complete data are available). At the national level, the rate was lower and falling: 18.1 from 1998 through 2000, and 16.7 from 2004 through 2006. New York doesn’t seem interested in the construction-worker death rate, though; its Department of Buildings doesn’t include it in the mayor’s management report.
While construction may be “dangerous,” most construction deaths are preventable. In 2006, more than half of them were from falls, often because workers weren’t following basic rules. If a worksite contractor isn’t insisting on safety, it’s likely that he’s also flouting less serious rules—starting work too early in the morning, say. Since neighbors often report such infractions to the city, it wouldn’t be hard to use those complaints to step up surveillance on the worst culprits. Another important step is imposing rational, predictable penalties for all violation levels that would cost developers time and money.
Of course, some incidents are harder to predict and prevent. But one thing is clear, according to Barry LePatner, author of Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: at the peak of a boom, developers demand faster work from inexperienced subcontractors and supervisors. So the Department of Buildings’ inspectors should increase the rate of surveillance and enforcement as construction increases, not struggle to keep up.
But such efforts are worthless unless the city roots out corruption in the department. An honest inspection—whether it’s of noise violations or the adequacy of training—could mean the difference between life and death. After the two crane crashes, investigators charged one crane inspector with taking bribes and arrested another for allegedly fabricating a report claiming (falsely) that he had visited the first construction site before the collapse. It’s still too easy to find an alleged liar or cheat after each construction disaster. If Bloomberg has made strides here, the results don’t show.