11,484 Violations: Surprise Inspections Hit N.Y. Construction Sites
“Get rid of it right now,” an inspector barked when he saw a dangerous power tool. With injuries soaring, the city is tightening oversight.
The million-dollar view of the Manhattan skyline was wasted on Nolan Gutierrez.
He cared only about the danger lying at his feet: a missing railing atop an 11-story luxury condominium building under construction in Brooklyn. All that kept a distracted or careless worker from falling was some flimsy yellow hazard tape.
Mr. Gutierrez, a New York City construction inspector, shows up without warning at major construction sites to conduct spot safety checks. He is part of a new SWAT team of inspectors who swoop in to ferret out any safety lapses, often leaving behind frayed nerves and a stack of violations that can bring hefty fines or even stop the work.
The surprise inspections are New York’s most aggressive effort to tighten oversight of construction sites after a surge in worker injuries as the city undergoes its biggest building boom in more than half a century.
Construction injuries soared by 61 percent to 761 last year from 472 in 2015, according to city data. Construction fatalities, however, remained constant at 12 a year during that same period.
Before, the city had typically dispatched building inspectors only for scheduled visits, or in response to accidents and complaints about possible violations.
“It’s a total game-changer,” said Melanie La Rocca, the commissioner of the city’s Buildings Department. “This is the first time that we’ve had a unit dedicated to 100 percent proactive visits to larger construction sites.”
And officials say it is helping. In the first nine months of this year — as dozens of surprise inspections were carried out daily — construction injuries fell by 26 percent to 437 from 590 in the same period the year before, according to city data. The main difference, officials say, has been the surprise inspections, while other factors like major construction activity have remained steady.
Still, some construction workers and their advocates say that construction sites remain among the city’s most dangerous places to work, and that far more needs to be done to prevent accidents.
They say that workers are often put at risk by a lack of coordination among different contractors, time and job pressures that lead to shortcuts and inadequate enforcement of required worker safety training.
Jonathan C. Reiter, a lawyer who has represented injured construction workers, said there were limitations to the city’s spot inspections because work conditions change daily and only the developers and contractors who are on site every day can address them.
Even when inspections uncover safety violations, he added, there has to be follow up to correct them or workers still remain at risk.
“It’s such a potentially dangerous environment that it requires a daily, highly diligent approach to provide a safe environment for construction workers,” Mr. Reiter said. “That has to be part of the culture.”
Ruben Colon, a representative of the New York City & Vicinity District Council of Carpenters, said the surprise inspections were a good start, but need to happen more frequently and at more sites to really make a difference.
“It’s not enough, you barely see them on the radar, they’re too few and far between” he said.
The surprise inspections have been carried out by a team of 38 highly trained experts in areas such as renovations, high-rise construction, scaffolding and demolitions. Another 15 inspectors will eventually be added.
In total, the team has completed 20,166 surprise inspections of 10,256 construction sites, about one-quarter of all active construction sites citywide since September 2018. The majority of those inspections took place this year, after the unit was fully up and running.
Every major construction site — which includes new construction and major renovations of buildings four stories or higher — has already received at least one surprise visit, city building officials said, and more visits can be expected as the unit continues to grow.
Based on these visits, 11,484 violations were issued, totaling $15 million in fines. Another 2,523 orders were issued to stop work immediately, some because of dangerous working conditions such as missing guardrails and inadequate safety supervision.
At a handful of sites, an inspector issued a stop-work order after being refused entry for a surprise inspection. Though there has been little public opposition to the surprise inspections, some developers and contractors have said privately that the visits can be a nuisance that disrupts work and leads to unnecessary fines and paperwork for minor infractions.
“I am hearing from property owners and contractors who are getting increasingly frustrated and feel at some point they’re going to have to push back,” said one industry expert, who asked not to be named because he did not want to expose his clients to any repercussions from the city.
New York’s surprise inspections have set a new bar for cities expanding their inspection efforts as an influx of new development is reshaping skylines.
Many cities still rely primarily on complaints to prompt their inspections, often because of limited staff and resources, though inspectors in some cities, including Philadelphia, have the discretion to make surprise visits if needed, according to building officials and industry experts.
Building inspectors in San Francisco responded to more than 10,000 complaints last year about possible violations, up from 8,000 the year before, said William Strawn, a manager for that city’s Department of Building Inspection.
“What New York’s doing,” Mr. Strawn said, “strikes me as a very good thing to do. With all the increase in construction activity, it’s important for building regulatory agencies to stay on top of building safety issues.”
But other cities have taken different approaches, which they say are also working. Chicago building inspectors rely on information shared by other city agencies, as well as on strong working relationships with contractors and residents who “provide additional eyes and ears in the field,” said Gregg Cunningham, a buildings department spokesman there.
New York’s surprise inspections have drawn support from the city’s largest property owners and developers. “These are important measures that hold all parties accountable and promote a culture of safety,” said Paimaan Lodhi, a senior vice president of policy and planning for the Real Estate Board of New York.
However, Mr. Lodhi said, city inspectors should expand the surprise visits to smaller sites that have less stringent safety supervision. Under city rules, buildings that are 15 stories and above are considered higher risk sites and require a full-time site safety manager, while smaller buildings can have part-time safety supervision.
Louis J. Coletti, the president and chief executive officer of the Building Trades Employers’ Association, which represents union contractors, said that while relations with the city have been adversarial at times the inspections could benefit everyone if the city worked with them to improve safety instead of just penalizing them to raise money for city coffers.
“Based on the safety record of my contractors, unscheduled inspections are not something we’re fearful of,” Mr. Coletti said. “We want to ensure all our jobs are safe.”
Craig Hughes, a chief construction inspector, said the goal of the new effort was “to make sure every one gets home safely.” He added that inspectors generally did not write up minor violations that could be quickly fixed before they left.
In Brooklyn recently, Mr. Gutierrez and Mr. Hughes arrived in hard hats at the unfinished condominium building, Arbor Eighteen, as the workers were still getting their morning coffee. Even before going in, the inspectors spotted debris piled on top of scaffolding — a violation because it could fall on passers-by.
Mr. Gutierrez marched up to the makeshift entrance. “I’m here for a regular inspection,” he told surprised workers.
They asked what he wanted to see. Everything, he said, starting from the top.
Floor by floor, Mr. Gutierrez and Mr. Hughes squeezed past half-built walls, hanging wires and nervous workers. They ticked off one hazard after another. Fire extinguishers were used to prop open doors. An electrical cord was strung across a hallway, ready to trip someone. A spilled bag of cement powder sent up a white, choking cloud.
Two hand-held grinders were left out on a patio with their cutting edges exposed. “Get rid of it right now,” Mr. Gutierrez said. A worker hastily grabbed the grinders and took them out of his sight.
Mr. Gutierrez, a soft-spoken man, did not smile or give any indication of how the inspection was going.
Pedro Flores, 42, a worker who was installing doors, did not mind. “We need to prevent accidents,” he said. “It’s the best for everyone.”
Three hours later, Mr. Gutierrez and Mr. Hughes had seen enough. They would issue 15 violations totaling $33,550 in fines to the general contractor, Danya Cebus Construction. Another two violations totaling $3,750 were issued to the scaffolding contractor, the Rock Group.
Danya Cebus and Rock Group did not respond to requests for comment about the inspection or the violations.
Mr. Gutierrez said that during other inspections he had been yelled at and called stupid and coldhearted. He was recently turned away from a construction site.
But he does not stop until his job is done. A former construction worker himself, Mr. Gutierrez, 45, recalled that he was once knocked unconscious on the job when a window partition fell on his head.
“If you don’t take the right precautions, it will cost you your life,” he said. “That’s where we come in. We provide the safety net for the workers.”