Construction Worker Deaths Spike

Construction has increasingly become a deadly business -- especially in New York, where laborers routinely dangle from skyscrapers, all part of a building boom that has defied the national slowdown.

Just this week, high-rise concrete forms collapsed at the site of Donald Trump's hotel and condo complex in Lower Manhattan. One Ukrainian immigrant worker -- the father of several children -- was decapitated as he plunged 42 stories to his death. Three others were injured.

Two months ago, another immigrant worker was killed when he fell 15 stories, prompting formation of a task force to cut down on scaffolding accidents.

At least 43 people died while working construction in New York in 2006, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, up 87 percent from the year before when 23 people died.

Across the United States, construction ranks as the most dangerous industry, representing about 20 percent of all work-related fatalities, according to federal statistics.

Deaths rose from 1,131 in 2003 to 1,226 in 2006. By comparison, 836 workers died in mining accidents last year, and 447 died in manufacturing. The government reports between six and seven construction deaths per 1,000 workers.

Nationwide, deaths from falling off scaffolding remained steady at about 88 per year.

"The regulations are there," said Philip Russotti, a New York lawyer who represents workers -- many of them in scaffolding accidents.

"Safety costs money," he said. "If you are motivated by profit, you are motivated to push people to move quickly and cut corners with safety. But you're playing with people's lives."

Russotti's firm obtained an $18 million award for a construction worker who fell from a ladder and suffered a brain injury. Another verdict awarded $11.1 million to a 53-year-old man who fell 10 feet on his head and suffered dementia and a permanent mood disorder.

There are no statistics on how many pedestrians are killed when scaffolding collapses, but many New Yorkers face daily anxiety as new building sites crop up in their once residential neighborhoods.

"I am so used to seeing scaffolding," said Amanda Schupak, a 26-year-old freelance writer who lives in the bustling East Village. "When I see them putting it up or tearing it down, I'm, terrified and cross the street."

In Chicago in 2002, scaffolding outside the John Hancock Center plunged more than 40 floors to the ground during a windstorm, killing three women in cars.

Still, said industry experts, those incidents are rare.

The rise in construction fatalities can be explained by a deadly mix of untrained immigrant workers, lax attention to safety regulations and profit-minded contractors who cut corners in all areas from labor to materials.

"There is a tremendous pressure, particularly in construction, to put pressure on workers to be productive and to take short cuts," said Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health.

Fines for employers who violate regulations are low -- averaging only about $1,600 an incident, according to Shufro. When a worker is killed, the maximum punishment is six months in jail.

"Fines for harassing a burro on federal land are greater," he said. "But they do the best they can with limited resources."

Bovis Lend Lease, the company that is handling the Trump project, released a statement to the Associated Press saying they would launch an investigation of the worker's death.

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