"The industry fines are considered a cost of doing business and are too minimal to effect a change in behavior," the association's president, Benedict P. Morelli, said.
The study examines reports prepared by federal safety inspectors after construction accidents in New York City between January 2001 and August of this year that resulted in death or serious injury. A total of 156 accidents were analyzed; all but 12 resulted in at least one fatality.
According to the study, inspectors penalized builders at 113 of the accident sites for violations such as insufficient guardrails and safety nets. In most cases, fines amounted to no more than $10,000; only six of the violations resulted in fines greater than $50,000, the study says.
The average penalty for serious safety violations, in which severe injury or death is highly likely, is $1,569, according to the trial lawyers' study. The maximum prison sentence for a safety violation is six months under federal law, but from 1990 to 2003, there were only four cases nationwide in which a builder found to be at fault was imprisoned, the study says.
OSHA's penalties should at least be severe enough to deter future lapses, said Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health.
In addition to the low penalties, the study lists inadequate supervision as a reason that builders do not feel compelled to comply with safety regulations. Only 28 safety inspectors cover construction and renovation sites in New York City, northern New Jersey, and Westchester and Rockland Counties, allowing inspection of an average of six sites a day in the entire region, the study says.
Nearly half of the 156 accidents examined in the study involved falls from a scaffold, roof or ladder. Immigrant workers were the most common victims, amounting to two-thirds of those killed or injured since October 2001, when OSHA began to include in its reports the language the worker spoke on the job.
"The rapid growth of New York City's underground construction industry, an industry that employs mostly immigrants and where worker safety often takes the back seat, makes credible enforcement of OSHA safety standards more important than ever," said Glenn von Nostitz, senior policy adviser for the trial lawyers' group.