English translation of op-ed published in El Diario on May 26, 2015.
How Much is a Life Worth?: The Fight for Workplace Safety Lives On
By Assemblyman Francisco Moya
How much is a life worth? $10 million? $1 million? $10,000?
After Ricardo Gonzalez fell to his death at a construction site in Queens last year, the penalties his employer paid for failing to provide a safe worksite amounted to only $10,440. That's a shamefully low penalty for loss of life and it's certainly not enough to incentivize Ricardo's employer to change its ways.
In theory, safety inspectors are supposed to keep construction companies from taking risks with the lives of their employees, but in reality, penalties are too low and inspections are too infrequent to make an impact. Because of severe understaffing, it would take OSHA over 100 years to inspect every worksite in New York just once. The idea that OSHA is effectively enforcing workplace safety laws is a fiction. That's where the Scaffold Safety Law comes in.
The Scaffold Safety Law requires employers to provide proper safety equipment and training to their workers and it holds them accountable when they take shortcuts with safety. OSHA penalties, on their own, are simply not enough.
Unfortunately, some want to get rid of the Scaffold Safety Law. For several years, a self-serving coalition of insurance companies and property owners have been trying to dismantle this law, a measure that has saved countless lives. (Indeed, New York's construction injury rate was sixth lowest in the country, from 2000 to 2011.)
The conversation about workplace safety has, for generations, been a proxy for conversations about immigration and class. In the early 1900s, the sweatshops that flourished on the Lower East Side exploited recent immigrants who were so desperate for employment that they were willing to work in deplorably unsafe conditions. Today, half of all fatalities in construction, New York's deadliest industry, happen to immigrants. And in 2012, 39% of all fatalities on the job happened to Latinos.
As the family of Ricardo Gonzalez knows all too well, cutting corners can be deadly. So what is a human life worth? It is undoubtedly worth more than whatever money Ricardo's employer saved by cutting corners with safety.
Assemblyman Francisco Moya represents the 39th Assembly district, which includes parts of Jackson Heights, Corona, and Elmhurst, Queens. He is the Chair of the Subcommittee on Workplace Safety.