Construction Accidents Fall

The Oberserver reported today that DOB fatalities and accidents resulting in injury are down for the year to date. That is good news, indeed (though as the Commissioner herself reminds us, one fatality is one too many).

Before everyone declares victory, let’s keep in mind that the data sets are pretty small. Scaffold fatalities, for instance, fell from 6 in 2006 to 1 in 2007 (all figures are YTD), or 83%; scaffold injuries fell from 17 to 11, or 35%1. Construction-related fatalities fell from 14 to 8, or 43%; but construction-related injuries only fell from 105 to 104, or less than 1%. And citywide, accidents on high-rise construction sites rose by 83% (from 23 to 42), while accidents on low-rise sites fell 23% (66 to 51).2

For the most part, DOB’s powerpoint presentation (warning: PDF) does not provide much in the way of apples to apples to data. For instance, fatalities are down, but what are the comparisons on a per job or per worker unit basis? They do report the total number of high-rise and low-rise construction projects for YTD 2007. From that, we can learn that the rate of accidents per high-rise project rose by 65% (vs. the 83% rise the overall number of accidents) – still an unacceptable number, but at least a number that takes into account the number of project sites active in a given period. Similarly, the rate of accidents on low-rise sites has fallen a rather remarkable 43% (a combination of a 31% increase in the number of low-rise construction sites and the 23% decrease in accidents). That 43% decrease, in statistical terms, is probably a lot more meaningful than the reported 43% decrease in construction-related fatalities.3

Beyond this year-over-year comparison of 2006 to 2007, DOB does not provide any trend data. What are the comparable fatality, injury and accident rates going back 10 years? Was 2006 an anomaly? 2007?

Also missing from the report card are any data on crucial areas of DOB deficiency in recent years. How are we doing on stopping damage to neighboring buildings?4 What are the trend figures in the numbers of complaints, inspections, stop work orders, etc.?

1. The number of scaffold injuries, and construction-related injuries in general, is probably woefully underreported. Still, I’m sure that was the case in 2006 as in 2007, so all we can compare is what was reported.

2. Again, I would suspect massive underreporting, particularly on low-rise sites, which tend to be non-union (union sites are much more likely to report even minor accidents).

3. If you are doubting my skepticism in notes 1 and 2, above, take a closer look at the numbers in this last paragraph. Citywide, there were 202 active high-rise construction sites in 2007, and 4,126 active low-rise construction sites. But despite representing just 4.67% of the city’s overall construction activity, these 202 high-rise sites accounted for a whopping 45.2% of all construction accidents citywide. If that were true – and it isn’t – the city would be best served by shutting down every high-rise construction site.

4.DOB does report 335 inspections by the Excavation Safety Team, resulting in 153 stopped jobs. This, too, is a good thing. And based on anecdotal evidence, I do suspect the number of catastrophic accidents affecting neighboring properties is down, but DOB provides no data to support this assumption.