As Construction Deaths Rise, a Mass for Fallen Workers Grows

Hundreds of workers gathered at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan last week to memorialize their 16 colleagues who died on the job in the past 12 months.

A bell tolled 17 times inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Thursday. It echoed off the polished marble floors and the scrubbed limestone columns. It echoed off the hundreds of hard hats that were resting in laps, on pews and beside 16 roses on 16 empty seats at the altar.

The bell, forged by ironworkers from two unions, hung from a cross made of bent and mottled steel salvaged from ground zero. It tolled 17 times for the 16 construction workers who died in the past 12 months in New York City, and once more for those who had died since 2008, when the building trades began celebrating an annual memorial Mass here. There are 140 names now adorning the base of the cross, saints of a soaring skyline.

“There is understanding this is a sacred industry,” the Rev. Brian Jordan, chaplain for the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said as he preached from the marble pulpit. “Our hands are sacred. Not just my hands as a priest, or as a piano player, as a violin player, or Stephen Curry, the basketball player. Everyone here who works in construction, you have sacred hands, and that’s why we appreciate you here today.”

Each April, on or around Workers’ Memorial Day, hundreds of construction workers file into St. Patrick’s, led up the limestone steps by a procession of bagpipers and the banners of their locals. Each April, their numbers swell.

The memorial had been held since 2000 at Father Jordan’s home parish, St. Francis of Assisi on West 31st Street. Then came the crane collapse in March 2008 that claimed seven lives, six of them from the industry. The Mass was hastily moved to St. Patrick’s and has remained there since.

Credit...Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Accidents were less frequent for a while after the crane collapse because of increased safety measures and a postrecession construction slowdown, but as real estate has boomed in recent years, the number of injuries and fatalities has risen sharply. For the workers, there is more work, but also more risk.

“It’s a tough business, and I want to show my support,” Tamek Sellars, a metal lather with Local 46, said before the Mass, when hundreds of workers assembled on Fifth Avenue. “You never know what could happen, day to day, putting up the city. God forbid if anything ever happened to me, my brothers and sisters would show support for me.”

In the last calendar year, 12 workers died on construction sites in the city, according to the New York City Buildings Department, up from eight in 2014. The total has not been that high since the previous construction boom, when 12 workers died in 2007 and 19 in 2008. According to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which categorizes accidents differently, there were 17 construction fatalities in 2015.

Father Jordan prefers to count those who have died from one Workers’ Memorial Day to the next: 16, this time.

Many are tragedies that Eddie Jorge, the bellman for the Mass, knows all too well.

“I’ve been to these nonunion jobs, to try and clean them up,” said Mr. Jorge, an organizer with the New York State Iron Workers District Council. “And then you have to go back a few months later because your fears have come true. It brings you down.”

These are boom times exceeding those of even a decade ago. Last year, 88 million square feet of construction was underway, according to the city. That was more than double the amount of work done in 2013 or 2014, and it exceeds the 65 million square feet built in both 2007 and 2008.

All that progress comes at a cost few but those assembled at St. Patrick’s recognize.

“I was at many of the sites of many of these accidents,” Rick Chandler, commissioner of the Buildings Department, said in an interview. “This Mass is a reminder to me and my staff of what we’re here for. Safety is our No. 1 priority.”

Even so, the number of injuries at construction sites has also risen, to 472 last year.

That was twice as many as in 2014, when 237 workers were hurt, and three times as many as in 2011. That year, at the trough of the construction slowdown, 152 workers were injured, and five died. During the previous boom, there were 121 injuries in 2007 and 178 in 2008.

The city attributes this rise in part to more rigorous inspections, which are catching accidents that would not previously have been reported. And in February, the department announced harsher fines and 100 new inspectors to increase enforcement.

The unions see a different problem.

“The real tragedy here is that these were almost exclusively nonunion jobs, and a lot of these deaths could have been prevented,” said Larry Amandola, a third-generation electrician with Local 3 whose grandfather once worked across the street building Rockefeller Center.

Only two of those honored at the Mass were working on union jobs. Dominick Deluca, a 25-year-old member of Local 1556, fell 15 feet from scaffolding last May while doing facade work at the Butler Houses in the Bronx. Manuel Sobral, 56, a laborer with Local 1010, was run over by his van in Central Park in February.

Those in the union argue these were freakish accidents — unlike those that claimed the lives of the other 14 recognized on Thursday.

Angel Muñoz, 27, fell down an elevator shaft last August at a construction site in Hell’s Kitchen where workers were made to work up to 60 hours a week. Fernando Venegas, 19, was one of seven workers crushed when a retaining wall collapsed in September at a development in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn (the others survived). In July, Alton Louise complained about working during a heat wave when he was sent up to the roof of a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, project one more time. He later collapsed and died.

“His body temperature measured 106 degrees,” Father Jordan cried out during a homily that recognized each of the fallen. “What is going on here? This is a human being! Something has to change here in New York.”

While on any other day, those assembled for Mass might have been picketing the nonunion job sites, on this day, they honored their fallen comrades and stood by their families. They clasped hands and cradled shoulders and wiped tears from sun-cracked eyes. They held aloft babies who would never know their fathers. They came in spite of intimidation from foremen and fear of deportation.

A parade of Carhartt coveralls and neon safety vests formed in the aisles for communion, the white wafers glinting between calloused hands.

At the closing prayer, the families of the deceased were invited to the altar to collect their rose and hard hat. The last to mount the carpeted steps were Angel Muñoz’s father and brother Luis, who was supporting himself on a cane after his own construction accident.

“His boss told him he couldn’t have off today, and we told him to take a hike,” Father Jordan said to cheers.

The next day, Luis Muñoz said that he hoped to return home to Ecuador someday with Angel’s helmet.

“I want to give it to his wife and kids,” Mr. Muñoz said, “and let the kids know he died working for them, to make their life better.”

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