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Construction Worker Deaths Spike

Ukrainian worker decapitated as he falls from Trump's 42-story tower site.

ByABC News
January 15, 2008, 7:15 PM

Jan. 16, 2008 — -- 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.

"Our hearts go out to the family of the deceased concrete worker, and our prayers are with the injured workers," said Mary Costello, company spokesman.

What is most startling in these accidents is the disproportionate number of immigrant deaths -- and not only in New York, where illegal workers make up 86 percent of all fatalities.

While urban areas are facing a building boom, more rural areas are feeling the effects of a slowing economy, according to construction experts. Unions and employers say they face increased competition from those who hire cheap, illegal immigrants.

"Having a union is first and foremost a defense mechanism in terms of protecting safety," Shufro said. "There is no way an individual worker can stand up to a foreman and say his job is dangerous and he won't do it. He would be fired immediately. Even if you say they violated the law and will call OSHA to fight it, you're gone. You're fired. And the chances of getting your job back are nil."

For immigrants who fear disclosure and deportation, it's even harder to speak up.

Troy Rosasco, a New York City lawyer who represents immigrants in injury cases, said hiring immigrants is "simply a fact of greed."

"Immigrants are asked to do things that legal residents would never do -- getting on a roof without safety harnesses, without proper shoes, without proper guards around scaffolding," he said. "It's an economic choice. 'If you don't do it,' they tell them, 'I've got 10 others like you.'"

One 30-year-old undocumented immigrant was given hasty instructions from his boss to rip up a floor while another worker was above, tearing down a wall, according to Rosasco, who is fighting to get the man compensation. The wall came crashing down on top of him, fracturing his leg and left hip.