Recession Continues to Drive Down Construction Accidents—Despite a Fatal One Monday

Monday saw the first construction fatality of the year, when a cinder block wall on a work site in Queens collapsed on top of three construction workers, killing one of them. As The Times details today, Hedilberto Sánchez was one of four brothers from Mexico who work construction–all, it so happens, on the same Elmhurst site last week. The bricks could have fatally crushed any of them.

This is one of the sad truths of the construction industry, that at any moment, because of human error, mechanical failure or just bad luck, someone could be killed. In the case of the Queens construction site, bad concrete, and perhaps a made masonry job, are to blame for the accident. And yet the fact remains, construction is a dangerous business.

Fortunately for hardhats across the Five Boroughs, that is less so the case with each passing year. After a devastating 2008 that saw the highest accident rate in decades–including 19 fatalities, more than half of which resulted from two streetshaking crane accidents and the fire at the Deutsche Bank Building–construction accidents have been steadily falling. This is due in large part to new safety regimes put in place by Department of Building’s Commissioner Robert LiMandri, who was appointed in 2008 following then-commissioner Patricia Lancaster’s resignation.

Yesterday, LiMandri announced that the number of construction-related accidents in the city fell 28 percent from last year, with 157 reported accidents compared with 218 accidents the year before. Fatalities were up slightly, with four fatalities at construction sites in 2010, compared to three in 2009.

In making his announcement, LiMandri reminded the industry that while progress has been made, more can always be done:

The decrease in accidents in 2010 shows that construction can be done safer, but yesterday’s tragic incident is a reminder of how dangerous this work can be. Our inspectors, engineers and architects are working harder than ever to protect New Yorkers, and as a result, there is a heightened awareness of safety throughout the construction industry. 

Many contractors and developers have added new safety measures to better safeguard their sites, such as cocoon systems to prevent falling debris, but there are some who continue to take shortcuts. Taking proper safety precautions can mean the difference between life and death.

Still, the question remains, is the central reason for this decline a matter safety precautions or stalled construction? Like accidents, building permits continued to decline last year, as they did the year before–and the three years before that, even. Part of the reason there were so many accidents in 2008 is the fervid pace of construction as a real estate bubble popped. Once the industry bounces back, can the safety persist? There is no reason it can’t, but that is up to the Department of Buildings, the developers and the hardhats to decide.

mchaban [at] | @mc_nyo Recession Continues to Drive Down Construction Accidents—Despite a Fatal One Monday