Help Wanted: Labor Shortages Threaten Construction Safety

The criticism and the proposed reforms following the city’s recent fatal construction accidents have tended to focus on crane safety

The criticism and the proposed reforms following the city’s recent fatal construction accidents have tended to focus on crane safety and the Department of Buildings, an agency derided by elected officials as inefficient and prone to corruption.

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But a broader challenge to the sector and to citywide safety comes from the rising demand for construction labor across the city, experts and construction industry professionals say, as a growing amount of work overextends contractors and managers as well as equipment.

Those in the industry say that the demand for labor has grown much faster than the supply, particularly for construction supervisors. The more available work means that less-seasoned firms and workers win more jobs, and as a result, there is worry that safety is suffering, particularly in smaller projects where experienced union workers are generally not used.

Already, both fatalities and injuries—a broader number not as affected by one or two high-profile accidents—are on pace in 2008 to far exceed counts of recent years. As of Monday, the city recorded 16 fatalities and 72 injuries at work sites this year, according to Caroline Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the DOB. Should the same rate of injuries continue, it would put the annual mark at over 150, surpassing the 124 that the department recorded in 2007 and the 116 in 2006. Twelve fatalities were recorded in 2007, and 18 in 2006.

“The industry has been stretched thinner than we would like in terms of experience and people who have been doing the jobs, and so I think we may have had more accidents in part because we have been stretched thin,” said Steven Spinola, president of the industry trade group the Real Estate Board of New York.

The issue of a labor supply shortage is one that is expected to grow in coming years. Projections from the New York Building Congress and a panel commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority forecast the demand for labor to rise by thousands of personnel in the next few years, as many of the large publicly administered projects get fully under way.

Within those numbers is the increasing need for project managers and construction supervisors, a crucial set of workers already in very short supply in the industry. The demand for project managers, construction managers and contractor supervisors in the city is expected to grow from about 19,000 workers in January 2008 to almost 22,000 in three years, according to the M.T.A. projections.

The industry has struggled to attract students out of engineering schools for the jobs, and numerous industry reports have expressed concern about the shortage.

“We probably field more calls for jobs than we have students to place right now,” said Anthony Cioffi, chairman of CUNY’s construction management and civil engineering department.

“This is an industry that has had some difficulty recruiting people,” said Louis Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers’ Association. “When you go back a few years, many of the engineers that were coming out of college jumped into the dot-com area. We lost almost a generation of people who didn’t even consider coming into the construction industry.”

And on top of the need for general laborers and construction managers, demand is up for equipment. This may cause overuse as owners of equipment, such as cranes, stretch to meet a longer roster of jobs.


INDEED, WORK HAS been in no short supply of late, nor does it seem headed for any drop-off in the years to come. Even if there is a decrease in the amount of new housing—a scenario industry executives consider likely for 2008—the number of projects administered or sponsored by the government will create thousands of jobs.

Between the West Side rail yards, the World Trade Center, the Second Avenue Subway and the No. 7 line extension, well over $20 billion in investment is anticipated in the next few years. Tack onto that potential or expected development at the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, Coney Island, and Willets Point in Queens, among others, and construction work will not be hard to find.

And beyond the labor shortage, other factors may spur the hiring of less experienced, generally cheaper contractors. With financing harder to come by and costs of many raw materials such as concrete skyrocketing, developers may look for savings on labor.

The recent accidents have caused some elected officials to push for a slowdown in the rate of construction citywide, saying that that would allow for safer work sites.

“One has to say, if we don’t have the expertise in our government agencies to do good oversight, if we don’t believe that the industry itself has the right staff and resources … maybe it’s time to slow down the process,” said State Senator Liz Krueger, in whose district the two most recent crane collapses occurred.

The Bloomberg administration, which has emphasized development as a key part of its legacy, has rushed to try to install new safety measures since the March crane collapse in Turtle Bay, which killed seven. Just days before the East 91st Street crane collapse in late May, the mayor and his staff met with industry leaders about construction safety, agreeing on a general reform package that was released last week, according to attendees.

Those in the industry generally agreed to the reforms, given the city’s insistence on moving forward, though there is still resistance from professionals over the mayor’s plan to change a requirement that the DOB commissioner be a licensed architect or engineer.

The city wants the freedom to install someone based on their managerial qualifications rather than on specific certifications, though the New York Building Congress and the American Institute of Architects have pushed back hard, saying the agency would be compromised without a certified industry professional in the position.

“Others without that credential have not been tested on their knowledge abou
t what really holds a building together,” said Rick Bell, executive director of the AIA New York chapter.

Whatever comes of the reforms to the DOB, that agency could also be affected by the high demand for labor, particularly for engineers in the construction trades.

“They’re hiring from that talent pool, too,” said Mr. Cioffi, the CUNY professor.

Help Wanted: Labor Shortages Threaten Construction Safety