By Bill Parry
Dozens of elected officials and union leaders joined state Assemblyman Francisco Moya (D-Jackson Heights) last week on the steps of City Hall as he unveiled proposed legislation to substantially increase criminal penalties on employers and supervisors who put their workers’ lives at risk.
The federal worker-safety statute lacks the teeth to impose significant punishments against developers and contractors who endanger their workers by failing to follow safety protocol, according to Moya. As a result, of the more than 400,000 workplace fatalities that have occurred since Congress enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1971, fewer than 80 have been criminally prosecuted, and only about a dozen employers or supervisors have been convicted, he said.
“Until we change the environment where construction-site deaths can be written off as a minor cost of doing business, nothing will change and dozens more workers will needlessly lose their lives,” Moya said. “These deaths are entirely preventable. We know that all it takes to save a life is adherence to the safety protocols already established by existing rules and regulations. Lives are lost when these protocols are carelessly ignored. Negligence is inexcusable and it is time our penal system reflects that.”
Moya’s bill amends the penal code to provide a new pathway for the prosecution of any employer or supervisor who ignores, disregards or fails to comply with safety protocols established by a law, standard, rule, order, or regulation. Under the legislation, such conduct could result in a class A misdemeanor if it directly exposes an employee to risk of bodily injury, carrying a potential fine of $25,000, or a class E felony with $50,000 in fines if the conduct directly resulted in serious physical injury, or a class D felony if it resulted in that worker’s death, and makes it a $50,000 fine.
“If any other field of work had a fatality rate this excessive, there would be an uproar and there would be immediate action,” Moya said. “Instead, the working-class — usually non-union and therefore likely to be immigrant — workers losing their lives on these construction sites are treated as a statistical probability. We are here today to raise their names up and say that they have not been forgotten, that the pain felt by their families who’ve spent this holiday season without them have not been forgotten.”
Assemblyman Michael DenDekker (D-East Elmhurst) said existing regulations and protocols have the ability to save lives — but only if they are adhered to — and employers find it too easy to ignore them.
“As a union member, I am very aware of the importance of safety regulations in the workplace. Unfortunately, too many employers would rather make large profits and face little or no consequences for their negligence than take the steps to protect their workers,” DenDekker said. “By amending the penal code to include harsher punishments for those who fail to follow safety protocols, we will be able to force employers to take their workers’ safety seriously, both union and non-union, and save lives.”
Newly elected Assemblyman Brian Barnwell (D-Maspeth) declared that the time for half-measures is over.
“Employers must realize that if they continue to risk the lives of their workers, they will face prosecution,” Barnwell said. “Workers who are merely trying to put food on the table for their families should not have to worry about the possibility of never making it home.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr