August 6, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – For those who often work at dizzying heights, one false move could wreck your entire life. But ironworkers, bridge painters, carpenters, crane operators and the like, somehow manage to venture out onto the precipice each day, and work as comfortably as someone sitting behind a desk in a cushy office. So, how do they do it?
The construction industry accounts for 22 percent of all the job-related fatalities occurring in the U.S. each year, with falls constituting the most common cause of those horrible deaths.
Talk to almost any union tradesperson around the city, however, and they will invariably sound totally blasé about swinging hammers, and turning wrenches at 700 feet in the air.
Steve McInnis, president, New York City District Council of Carpenters, maintains that it’s all about preparation. Together, union training centers and their contractors throughout the city spend billions of dollars annually producing not only the most skilled and knowledgable workforce on the job – but also the safest.
“It’s just part of the business that you got involved in,” McInnis says. “We go out of our way to make sure that we are not putting our people in a situation where they are not prepared to take on those challenges. We invest millions of dollars in training. It’s vital work that needs to get done – and they are prepared to do it.”
Sadly for non-union workers, they can’t say the same thing. Most of the deaths that occur on construction sites in New York City happen on non-union jobs.
“I can't say that our people are impervious,” McInnis says. “But they do have a better record than non-union.”
Falling is right there at the top of the list of things people fear most – and union apprenticeship programs try to identify those that are afraid of heights early in the training.
“If you ask somebody who is looking for a job, ‘Are you afraid of heights?’ They are always going to tell you no, because they want that job,” says Jack Kittle, political director, District Council No. 9 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.
Before assuming his present role with the union, Kittle painted bridges for 20 years. During that time, he encountered numerous workers on the job who were not even aware they were afraid of heights until they were hugging onto steel beams so tight they couldn’t be pried loose.
“I’ve seen them hug onto steel beams so hard, you have to punch their hands to get them to let go,” Kittle says. “These were tremendous apprentices, who worked hard. But the minute you took them off the ground, they’d freak out, and had to be carried down. It’s paralyzing for some people.”
Part of District Council No. 9’s apprenticeship program today, includes on-the-job training periodically painting the towering U.S.S. Intrepid parked at Pier 86.
“The training can absolutely protect you from the bad things that can happen – but I don’t know that it can ever make you one-hundred-percent comfortable that you can work in this industry,” Kittle says.
And even the most confident ironworker will admit to a fear of falling cropping up now and then.
“I think in the beginning, you might think, Wow! This is crazy," says Bryan Brady, director, Ironworkers Local 40/361 Training Center. "But once you get accustomed to it, it doesn't really enter your mind – accept in certain situations when you realize this is a little more dangerous than the average task that we do. But on a daily basis, I don't think most guys think about it too much."
Not all the accidents and fatalities in the industry occur at tremendous heights.
The New York Committee for Occupation Safety & Health cites that about 50 workers die each year falling off of ladders, while another 40 are killed falling off of scaffolds built at various heights.