Streams

Part 1: The Cost of Doing Business

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Every day, construction workers pour concrete 400 feet in the air, cranes hover overhead and familiar views of the sky disappear. Since 2003, the city has been experiencing a historic building boom. Development hasn’t been this high for 30 years.

But that prosperity has come at a high cost. So far this year, 27 construction workers have died working on private and public jobs in New York City, even as the city and the federal government try to find new ways to improve safety.

In the “The Cost of Doing Business,” WNYC looks at one accident from earlier this year and analyzes why this new attention to construction safety came up short. Reporters Cindy Rodriguez and Matthew Schuerman found that the new regulations were not enforced or couldn't be enforced.

On January 30th, Jose Palacios, a Mexican immigrant, fell to his death when the scaffold underneath him collapsed. This is part one of how and why he died.

Part 2: The Cost of Doing Business

Timeline

Slideshow: The death of Jose Palacios

SCHUERMAN: On the edge of Clinton Hill in Brooklyn, a 13-story glass building rises out of a sea of brownstones. It’s called The Collection and its 30 luxury condominiums are about to go on the market. .

LEMMA: Give me a minute. Let me open up a few of these.

SCHUERMAN: Aaron Lemma is a broker for the developer, Karnusa Equities.

LEMMA: This is my favorite line: a one-bedroom home that is really unique.

SCHUERMAN: The glass walls are actually four layers thick, to keep out noise and heat. All the water, including that for showers and toilets, is filtered.

SCHUERMAN: The 1800-square-foot roof is common space for all residents.

LEMMA: You can see here you’ve got 360 degree views completely unrestricted as far as the eye can see. You can see Manhattan….

SCHUERMAN: The roof is also where construction worker Jose Palacios died. That was January 30th, a Wednesday.

MEDNDELSON: It was somewhat of a windy day--

SCHUERMAN: Richard Mendelson, area director for OSHA, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, oversaw the investigation into the accident.

MENDELSON: --and we had several construction workers working on a scaffold doing some exterior façade work.

SCHUERMAN: The rain stopped, but the wind grew stronger. Gusts reached 20 miles an hour. Then 30. At about 10 o’clock, the scaffold tore free from the building, collapsed, and sent the workers tumbling. Palacios fell more than 10 stories, until he landed on a set-back at the third floor, fracturing his skull. He was taken to the hospital where he was declared dead on arrival.

RODRIGUEZ: Inside a modest house on an out of the way block in Astoria, Queens Jose Palacios' family still struggles with his death.

Twenty-eight-year-old Jasmine Solis is the dead construction worker's niece. She says the morning of the accident was drizzly and cloudy and she was surprised her uncle decided to go to work because on days like that he usually stayed home:

SOLIS: He said, but if I get there and it’s still raining then I’ll come back home and we thought that was normal but then well it was all for nothing….because the accident happened.

RODRIGUEZ: Jose Palacios lived with his niece, her husband and two children and helped pay the rent in this tidy apartment. He was also supporting a wife and daughter back in Mexico. And the night before he died the family had thrown a farewell party for the construction worker’s sister who would be returning to Mexico after a long stay. Solis says her mother left the next morning thinking everything was fine:

SOLIS: At the hour that my mother was taking her flight, 10 a.m. , my uncle was dying. The two things happened at the same time.

RODRIGUEZ: With her small daughter at her side, Solis takes a photograph off the wall. It’s her uncle celebrating her daughter’s third birthday--the last photo he would take before plummeting to his death. Without any hesitation three-year-old Hannah says that’s Lucho, her uncle, that died.

The 42-year-old construction worker was a handsome, short man with wavy black hair. Solis says her uncle was an outgoing person:

SOLIS: He was a person that always was happy. He would always give you a smile a person who would never shut down and would always talk to anyone…

RODRIGUEZ: Solis believes someone should pay for her uncle’s death but she’s not so sure it should be Bell Tower, the company that employed him for two and a half years.

SOLIS: He got along well with his boss. They had a friendship that was very good. During the summer when work finished they would go and drink a beer together. He never came to the house but my uncle went to his house and socialized with his family.

RODRIGUEZ: Jasmine says soon after the death, the family met with her uncle’s boss:

SOLIS: We saw in him the pain of losing a friend.

RODRIGUEZ: While Solis was hesitant to place blame on Bell Tower Enterprise federal investigators were not.

SCHUERMAN: The OSHA investigator who showed up after Palacios’ fall sorted through a twisted pile of pipes, wires and wooden planks that had scattered across the roof. The inspector determined that this accident could have been avoided with better training. The problem wasn’t the wind. OSHA’s Richard Mendelson says the problem was the scaffold.

MENDELSON The ties, guys, braces or outriggers to prevent the tipping of a supported scaffold were broke and were not sufficiently strong. What was specified and was supposed to be used at that job site was not put in place.

SCHUERMAN: Instead of using masonry screws to anchor the scaffold to the wall, workers used 25-gauge wire. Twenty-five gauge wire is what you would hang a picture with. It did not take long, given the wind, before the wire broke.

MENDELSON They had the correct ties, and for whatever reason, they didn’t have the tool—the correct tool to install those ties.

SCHUERMAN: The masonry screws they were supposed to use were found lying on the roof nearby. What the workers were missing was the right-sized drill bit. OSHA estimates the bit would have cost 4 dollars to buy from a hardware supply house.

The OSHA report shows there is some dispute as to who allowed work to go on under such high winds: the two workers that survived said the site supervisor, hired by the developer, gave them the go-ahead. The site supervisor said he ordered the work stopped but the crew disobeyed him.

OSHA faulted the subcontractor, Bell Tower, for putting an unqualified man in charge of the scaffold, and fined the company more than 36,000 dollars. The investigation found that the man who was supposed to be in charge of the scaffold was none other than Jose Palacios—although Palacios’ niece disputes that. The OSHA report says that Palacios had never erected a scaffold for anything but a two-story house before.

MENDELSON: The competent person's authority should have said, What we do now is wait until we get the proper tools we don’t just press forward.

SCHUERMAN: OSHA says the president of Bell Tower, Christopher Page, still has not paid that fine. He disconnected his cell phone and home phone. Other attempts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.

RODRIGUEZ: This fatal accident at a Brooklyn condominium tower was apparently not the first time that a Bell Tower employee fell from a scaffold. Carlos Morocho says it had happened before, only no one died and the incident was never reported to authorities. The 22-year-old says he was the alleged victim in that accident. The boyish former construction began working for Bell Tower in 2006.

MOROCHO: The bosses--they had a guy who spoke English that managed the jobs. Sometimes they would come and check up on us.

RODRIGUEZ: Morocho, wearing baggy jeans and a T-shirt, his straight black hair in a pony tail, described his former bosses as careless. He blames them for his bad back and other injuries he says he suffered while working on a scaffold in Borough Park, Brooklyn. This one wasn’t as high off the ground as the one at 525 Clinton but there were similarities. Morocho says workers used it even though they knew they were missing parts to make it safer:

MOROCHO: It was like a Monday and we had prepared all the scaffolds because I had been there all day on Friday doing that. But we asked our boss for material to properly secure them but he never brought it.

RODRIGUEZ: The 22-year-old is now suing his former bosses. He was interviewed at the office of his attorney who says his client fell because wooden planks that form the floor of the scaffold were not secured properly. According to the attorney, Morocho stepped on one end of the plank and the other end flew up causing him to fall to the ground below. The worker says his first response was to see if he could stand up.

MOROCHO: Not even five seconds after I stood up I couldn’t walk, or move or do anything because a serious pain hit me. All of my friends were saying call an ambulance, call an ambulance but I said don’t call one…I don’t know why I thought something would happen to me that they would arrest me.

RODRIGUEZ: Morocho says instead of an ambulance, workers called his boss who dropped him off at a hospital emergency room. The incident was never reported to the Department of Buildings or OSHA. Morocho says there were other times when he felt unsafe while working on a scaffold for Bell Tower and even though he felt the company put its workers at risk, he was surprised when he heard his friend Jose Palacios had died:

MOROCHO: I couldn’t believe it I said no he can’t be dead. They said, he’s dead. I said no they said yes… Apart from working he was a good person and set a good example. An excellent person is all I can say.

RODRIGUEZ: Work was steady with Bell Tower and Morocho says the company had jobs all over the city though most were in Brooklyn. When he left he was making 13 dollars an hour off the books. He says once he got hurt his boss’ tried to find him less strenuous work and said they would pay his medical bills but never did.

And even if he wins his lawsuit, getting compensated will likely be complicated. Morocho’s attorney says Bell Tower President, Christopher Page apparently shut down his company, moved to Wisconsin.

SCHUERMAN: Preventing these types of construction accidents and fatalities has proven daunting for federal regulators. And it’s not difficult to see why. OSHA has 20 inspectors responsible for overseeing thousands of construction sites across the five boroughs. And Richard Mendelson says they primarily react to accidents and complaints instead of doing preventive inspections. He was hesitant to say his unit is under staffed and instead offered, if he had more inspectors, there would be enough WORK to keep them busy. In fact, this summer, in response to a sharp rise in accidents, OSHA had to bring in staff from outside the region to conduct surprise inspections around the city. The shortage means the city’s Department of Buildings has been left to be primarily responsible for making construction work safer.

For WNYC, I’m Matthew Schuerman

RODRIGUEZ: And I’m Cindy Rodriguez.

Part Two of “The Cost of Doing Business” airs Wednesday, November 19, during Morning Edition.

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