A New State-Run Database Undercounts Construction Fatalities

A new state website designed to track construction workers’ fatalities is undercounting on-the-job deaths in New York City.

Take the case of Pape Khoule, 46, of Elizabeth, New Jersey. He died on Sept. 12 after a 2,000-pound piece of machinery fell on top of him while working in Brooklyn. The death was documented by, among others, the New York Daily News. But his death doesn’t show up in the state’s database.

In all, the database, which launched in January, records only nine fatalities in construction in the city this year, with the latest entry occurring on April 26. In fact, at least 13 construction workers have died in the city so far in 2022, according to records kept by the New York City Department of Buildings and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The Department of Labor didn’t respond to several phone calls and emails.

A spokesperson told Gotham Gazette in July that the department was educating contractors, medical examiners and coroners “about their responsibilities when a construction fatality occurs.”

The law behind the database mandates that coroners and medical examiners report construction fatalities to the Department of Labor within 72 hours after they have determined the death was a workplace injury.

The city’s medical examiner, under normal circumstances, reports a construction fatality to the Department of Labor within a couple days after the death, said spokesperson Julie Bolcer. She added that Khoule’s death, which occurred on a Monday, was reported to the department within the same week.

Construction workers’ safety is a perennial issue in New York City. On average, 20 workers died in the city per year between 2010 and 2020, the latest year for which data is available, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The database was set up to help lawmakers protect construction workers by giving up-to-date information, according to a legislative memo.

State Sen. Jessica Ramos sponsored the bill, which was enacted into law in early 2021. “Our office is currently actively working with the Department of Labor on bringing the fatality registry up to the legislation’s standards,” a spokesperson for Ramos said in an emailed statement.

When Gotham Gazette reported in July on the halting start, it cited a letter Ramos had sent to the department in which she wrote that the database “has yet to reflect an accurate list of fatalities that have occurred and is currently nonexistent on the website.”

After the article was published, the Department of Labor made some improvements to the website.

Still, its information is confusing.

For example, the database places all its city fatalities on the intersection of Broadway and Murray Street, and it has two pairs of entries where two fatalities allegedly occurred in the city on the same day. In both cases, one entry appears to refer to an actual fatality and the other not, creating an impression of a double-count.

Accurate data can improve worker safety, said Diana Florence, a former prosecutor who led a construction-fraud force when she worked in Manhattan’s District Attorney’s Office.

“When you have data, you can look for patterns,” Florence said. She prosecuted criminal cases that stemmed from the death of Carlos Moncayo, who was killed in a trench cave-in in Lower Manhattan in 2015.

One company and a foreman were convicted of negligent homicide. Another company and a foreman admitted their guilt in plea deals.

“In Carlos’s case, not only had they had these unsafe conditions, but they were also stealing wages from Carlos and his co-workers. I was able to put this together because I was able to cull data from different places,” Florence said.

Fatalities can go unreported because the agencies that track them use different methodologies in record-keeping.

By assigning the duty of reporting the fatalities to coroners and medical examiners, the new database could help reduce underreporting of fatalities, said John Newquist, a consultant on construction worker safety and a former assistant regional administrator for OSHA.

Newquist noted that contractors who violate regulations might shun reporting fatalities to avoid scrutiny. Also, he said, OSHA isn’t authorized to record information on self-employed independent contractors.

About the author(s)

Juhana Rossi is a student at the Columbia Journalism School (M.Sc. in Data Journalism) covering the construction industry in New York City.