Union: ‘It Has Gone on for Too Long’

Over two dozen construction workers gathered at the site where a partial building collapsed to honor Segundo Huerta, a construction worker from Ecuador who died in the collapse that crushed him on Aug. 27. The workers assembled a vigil at 94 E. 208th St. near Steuben Avenue, the site of the collapse, that included candles, flowers, a hard hat, and a T-shirt memorializing him.

The crowd circled around the very spot Huerta took his last breaths. He was a father of five and had been working alongside other family members at the time of the accident. He was also the first reported construction-related death in the Bronx this year. Their family was not present for the Sept. 5 vigil.

The workers in attendance gathered in solidarity for their fellow construction worker calling attention to the safety hazards that apply to working at a construction site. Those present had ties to Local 79, a unionized labor group and the Bronx Brigade, a group of construction workers who advocate for safer work conditions.

“It is our job as construction workers to stand together and honor those who have fallen before us, to make sure that the ‘should’ve’ and ‘could’ve’ no longer continue to happen,” said Corey Prentice, a Local 79 construction worker and member of the Bronx Brigade. “It has gone on for too long. It has gone on enough. We’ve lost too many good brothers and good sisters to contractors who cut corners at every cost.”

Assemblywoman Nathalia Fernandez, who represents the area where the incident occurred, was also present and addressed the crowd stating, “This could have been prevented and that’s the worst part about it. This could’ve been prevented with better safety measures.”

The workers had been about three to four months in on the project, as permits for the property were issued in May by the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB). The men were working on a four-story property expected to house eight units when the third floor of the building became overloaded with concrete masonry blocks, causing it to collapse onto the second floor below, crushing Huerta. His nephew Manuel Huerta, suffered a serious spinal injury and his cousin Santiago Mayancela, experienced lacerations to his ear along with a bruised leg according to the Daily News.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is now investigating. Its mission for workers safety is in line with Local 79, according to market development department auditor Anthony Williamson.

“[W]e would like to see safety standards being enforced by the Department of Buildings. It’s about profit over people and this stance has got to stop. Elected officials have to hold people responsible. They’ve got to ensure that when these contracts go to these contractors they have a good track history,” said Williamson in response to the building collapse. The lead contractor, Pioneer Construction, did not respond to calls for comment.

The listed architect of the job, L&C Associates, is also under scrutiny.

Building records show Suresh Manchanda, one of the lead architects of the project, had his professional certification and Directive 14 privileges suspended on Dec. 4, 2017. A spokesperson from DOB reached out to the Norwood News and stated, “Professional Certification and Directive 14 privileges allows Registered Architects and Professional Engineers to file applications for work permits in New York City with limited DOB review.”

Several aspects in applying for a project are also expedited through these rights. “These privileges allow design professionals to self-certify that the plans they file are in compliance with all applicable laws, and speed up the application process. DOB conducts random audits of these professionally certified plans to ensure that they are filed properly.”

Instead of having the ability to obtain permits quickly, any contractor who surrenders their Directive 14 privileges must have their plans directly evaluated by the DOB.

According to the DOB’s website, residents in the area filed at least two complaints against the construction site since June. The complaints consisted of being afraid to walk under shaky scaffolding around the front of the building and that construction workers were occupying all of the parking spots on Steuben Avenue. However, no violations were filed after DOB inspections.

A spokesperson from the city Department of Transportation (DOT) stated, “DOT only has one permit issued in 2019 at this address for a container, and it was not issued a summons for violating any provision.” On Sept. 9 the work stop order that was placed on the property was partially rescinded to allow, “emergency partial demolition,” according to public DOB records as well. The DOB issued a statement stressing the incident remains under investigation.

“This was a preventable tragedy and our hearts go out to the family of the worker who died. We will continue to investigate this incident aggressively and bring all appropriate enforcement actions against those responsible. Our number one priority at the Department will always be the safety of all New Yorkers, and we won’t tolerate anyone who endangers the lives of their workers by cutting corners on the job site and ignoring safety rules.”

Construction deaths continue to be common throughout New York City. Over the last four years, 44 workers in total have died while on the job. Twelve workers have died each year from 2016 through 2018, according to building records. In June, a work site death in which a worker fell from the scaffolding in upper Manhattan made headlines. On Sept. 3, the DOB pulled the construction licenses of the two companies overseeing this project, according to the Daily News.

For residents living near the Norwood building collapse, the speed at which the project went up seemed uncanny, and many worried over the workers safety. Dr. Violet Wallace, director of a church one building up from the site was not surprised by the accident.

“That was a bad thing waiting to happen, that was the feeling in my gut. You can’t build a building and the building has no proper place to drop off materials. The city needs to stop these kinds of jobs and make sure there are parameters set to build. They didn’t put steel beams, there was no support, the whole roof was destined to come down,” said Wallace.

Article published in the Norwood News on September 11, 2019.