Ask a Construction Worker: A Freakonomics Quorum

Safety is an all-too-familiar issue in the construction industry — workers in Las Vegas are striking over it; in April, New York’s building commissioner resigned in light of more than 26 construction worker deaths in the city this year.

As for the two recent crane collapses in New York, Patrick Crean, a construction worker at the Freedom Tower site, suspects old equipment that’s not inspected enough.

Could it happen at the Freedom Tower site? Not a chance, he says. “We’re drowning in bureaucracy here.”

All workers at the Freedom Tower site are unionized and the Port Authority is involved, he explains. At less notable sites in Manhattan? Who knows.

Construction workersRight to left: Gerard Gausman, Patrick Crean, Mike Berlingo, Annika Mengisen, Chris Berlingo, Mike Hamberg, Pat Moynihan.

I asked a few construction workers what they feel about safety, their jobs, and their water cooler conversations (and got a great photo op in the process).

Here are their answers:

Tom Kelly, worked in four states from 1979 to 1989, current member of Laborer’s International Union of North America, Local 147.

How long in construction: 10 years.
Commute: Longest: about 25 miles, shortest: about 100 yards.
Salary: From $50k to $100K. Benefits (medical and dental) for union jobs only.

What’s one safety rule you would initiate at your workplace? What rules are unnecessary?

On union jobs the safety rules tend to be comprehensive, and effectively enforced. On non-union jobs — haha.

Many non union jobs are criminally negligent about safety. And after years of Republican rule of federal government there is little realistic enforcement. In other countries when workers are killed in, say, a building collapse, somebody goes to prison when negligence is proven. Here they might be fined a paltry sum.

I have yet to encounter a safety rule that was unnecessary. Although some are annoying — like wearing masks.

What’s one thing you’d change about the design of a current or past project you’ve worked on or the way it is/was being built?

I would have included a penthouse apartment for myself on top of one of the condo towers I worked on.

What’s your favorite lunch? Drink?

Lunch – spinach salad with grilled chicken. Drink – New York City tap water brought to us by the sandhogs.

Do you currently see construction work as more or less dangerous than before you started doing it? What affected your perception?

Not to beat the same drum, but: on union jobs there’s always a greater sense of safety — even more so today than back in the late 70’s/ early 80’s when I broke in.

Why is this? I think the building trades have gotten more sophisticated in their training and even more vigilant — there is less acceptance of injuries than there used to be. A generation ago it was taken for granted that you would get hurt working construction and there was a real macho attitude about it.

I remember more funerals back in the day.

What would make construction work not worth it to you anymore?

Complete destruction of the union movement.

What’s a prominent misconception about your job?

It’s a lot more interesting and fun than most people might guess. For example: the complexity of the various processes that are involved.

Most construction workers — no matter what their trade or how narrow their job description — are fascinated by the entire scope of a project and proud to be a part of it. Another thing many don’t realize is the intense pride the men and women take in being part of creating something that will last for decades or even centuries. They take ownership of the project — as in, “I built this tower or that bridge or that tunnel.”

What do you and your co-workers talk about the most?

I have had conversations ranging from Proust to comparative political theory to appreciation of the female form.

What’s the most memorable thing a co-worker has said?

It’s a toss-up between 1) “Haha — a Shakespeare book — that stuff any good?” and 2) “Jesus Christ, we should all be dead.”

How often do you estimate corners are cut on construction projects? When was the last time you saw this happening?

There are many unscrupulous companies that would pave over their mothers for a buck — and many others that always strive to do right.

Because of intense competition almost all look for angles. The profit margins are so narrow on a big job that if a contractor can pay some guys off the books or use materials that are maybe somewhat substandard (and cheaper) they often try. I worked on a project where the contractor consistently tried to stiff us on overtime pay — would literally lie to your face about it.

CementWorkers at the Freedom Tower site.

Matthew Sorrell , project engineer.

How long in construction: One season as a laborer for an excavation company, 2 years as a construction inspector, and 4 years for an engineering company.
Commute: About 45 minutes.
Salary: Around $27 per hour. “Or quite a bit more than my starting salary as an engineer … Because I worked for an open shop, I did not receive any actual benefits, but my hourly rate was increased so that I could buy my own insurance.”

What’s one safety rule you would initiate at your workplace? What rules are unnecessary?

I can’t think of any specific “rule” I would initiate … 98 percent of safety is just paying attention to what you are doing and to your surroundings.

You can’t mandate good judgment. Although many of the rules are good and grounded in common sense (they do create a general “culture” of safety), sometimes the letter of the law, so to speak, is enforced too much.

Many times you stand there and say, “I understand why this rule exists, but when applied blindly in this situation, it just doesn’t make sense.”

What’s one thing you’d change about the design of a current or past project you’ve worked on or the way it is/was being built?

Every project is different so it is difficult to say what aspect of a design I would change without giving the entire history of the job.

I guess if I had to pick one general item, I would say that often times it seems as if little attention is paid to site constraints. It is often difficult to get the proper equipment into tight sites, and it always seems like on every job you will find yourself trying to exit out of a construction site — with a loaded truck — and trying to accelerate into traffic on a busy road, near a blind curve.

What’s your favorite lunch? Drink?

My favorite lunch on a construction site was this time when we were working on a bridge job in December. It was the day before we were shutting down for Christmas and New Years, and some of the guys brought in deer meat; another guy, who kept pigs, brought in some homemade bacon and sausage.

We started a fire in a 55-gallon drum and roasted the meat over the wood fire. It hit the spot as the snow fell around on a chilly afternoon — beat the food at most office parties I have been to.

As far as drink — one guy always kept a cooler in the back of his truck. Every night on his way home, he would buy a six-pack of Labatts Blue, and fill the cooler with ice. By 5 p.m. the next day, the ice had melted and the beers were just right. Tasted good after a hot day in the sun.

Do you currently see construction work as more or less dangerous than before you started doing it? What affected your perception?

After working construction, I perceive it as less dangerous than I did before.

Of course, there are hundreds of ways to kill or maim yourself when using power tools in a fast-paced environment, but as I said, 98 percent of safety is paying attention.

Because the work is potentially dangerous, guys tend to watch what they are doing. Of course, when guys get comfortable, that’s when accidents happen. In general though, I feel safer when working around an experienced crane operator (i.e. a guy who knows what he is doing) than when driving behind someone who is talking on her cell phone while trying to switch lanes (or not paying attention).

What would make construction work not worth it to you anymore?

When actually getting the work done becomes less important than how it is done (can’t use a rock crusher because it is too loud for the neighborhood, can’t drive a truck down a certain road because it is too dusty and complaints have been received, can’t eat lunch in certain areas because local residents don’t want to see “grotesque” workers eating, etc. All really happened, including use of the word “grotesque.”), it is time for me to get out of the industry.

What’s a prominent misconception about your job?

The biggest misconception, by far, is the stereotype of the dumb brute construction worker. Although I have met my share of dummies on sites, many of the guys I have worked with are/were sharply intelligent. You can’t build a bridge across a river, put up a high-rise building, or install a complete HVAC system if you are an idiot.

True, a lot of guys might not be able to tell you a lot about Rousseau‘s essays, and how they relate to the current socio-economic situation, but I haven’t met many Political Science majors who could dewater an excavation, lay out piles, or switch out the hydraulic line on a backhoe. Lack of a college degree does not equal “stoopid.” You’d be surprised at the conversations you’d have with some guys.

What do you and your co-workers talk about the most?

Of course, after my last answer talking up the intellect of Joe Worker, in my estimation, the most popular topics of conversation on site are 1) how generally f-ed up the guys in charge are 2) deer hunting 3) the f-ups the guys in charge made on the last three jobs 4) the latest and greatest f-ups by the guys in charge 5) women.

What’s the most memorable thing a co-worker has said?

Many memorable things have been said, but the first one that comes to mind right now is an old mason, who just simply said, “There’s always someone bigger.”

Some guy was bragging about something or other, and this guy wasn’t having any of it — shut him right up. It’s good advice too.

How often do you estimate corners are cut on construction projects? When was the last time you saw this happening?

There is always a game that is being played; contractors are always trying to get over. Most of the time though, it is just optimizing a design, or making something more efficient, and half the time these guys just think they are getting over; they’d step over a dollar to pick up a dime sometimes.

I haven’t seen any real blatant “corner-cutting” though. Whether that is because contractors are genuinely looking out for their fellow man and are working for the common good, or whether in this day and age, they are just savvy enough to realize that though they could maybe save a hundred bucks by not doing something, should something go wrong they are going to be the lead defendant in a $100 million lawsuit — I don’t know.

If salary wasn’t a consideration (all jobs paid the same), and you could choose any occupation, what would you be happiest doing?

If salary weren’t an option, I guess I could do anything where I was my own boss. Whether that’s running a fishing boat, or a restaurant. If you are working for yourself, you aren’t really working.


Patrick H. Crean
, carpenter shop steward, Carpenters Local 608, Callavino Construction

Most recent job location: World Trade Center Freedom Tower.
How long in construction: 24 years.
Commute: 2 hours each way.
Salary: $75,000 plus, union pension, dental and medical plans — including scholarship funds for children of union members and a hardship fund for members in need.

What’s one safety rule you would initiate at your workplace? What rules are unnecessary?

If given the opportunity, I would enforce the use of personal protective equipment and that all workers be responsible to utilize the correct protective equipment for the specific task at hand. In addition, I would initiate a fall protection plan for individual job designation.

What’s your favorite lunch? Drink?

The favorite lunch of the crew would have to be the Italian Combo Hero from Parises Deli on Mott Street with a cold bottle of water!

Do you currently see construction work as more or less dangerous than before you started doing it? What affected your perception?

The dangers of the profession are ever present; however the New York City District Council of Carpenters Health and Safety Department, which is headed by John McGrail, has implemented many safety programs and job-specific certification programs to prepare apprentices and journeymen thoroughly to work in an efficient and safe manner.

What would make construction work not worth it to you anymore?

If union rules, training, and wages were no longer enforced.

What’s a prominent misconception about your job?

That all construction sites are manned with skilled union workers. The fact is, there are many non-union construction sites that are being manned by unskilled and untrained individuals.

What’s the most memorable thing a co-worker has said?

“Work like the professional you are and keep your union strong.”

How often do you estimate corners are cut on construction projects? When is the last time you saw this happening?

On union jobs everything is done in accordance with engineer drawings and no corners are cut.

If salary wasn’t a consideration (all jobs paid the same), and you could choose any occupation, what would you be happiest doing?

I would like to be in charge of the Department of Labor so that I could award all contracts to union contractors who employ highly trained and skilled individuals.


Daniel Reeves

Two things that would help me appreciate unions:

1) If they stopped trying to pass so many laws that favor them (required membership, etc.).
2) If they stopped being so militant about unions.

Hooray for some unions

Glad to hear that some unions are out to protect their workers. But I know of at least one story or two of cases just the opposite- unions in kahoots with management- so the worker who tells the truth does not stand a chance i.e., unless they document and present evidence of their case so well....... This raises a question that's been on my mind for a while- when do unions work effectively and when don't they and why?

Paul O'Keef

I have two engineering degrees and have worked in commercial construction for roughly 8 years. I am in the South, where unions are not the found and not liked.

Do we have problems with finding skilled workers? Yes, we do. Is that a Union issue? I don't think so. I place a lot of blame on society and the education system. We have been demonizing blue collar work for some time in the country. We encourage everyone to go to college - which sounds great. But, the man that would be a stellar carpenter doesn't want that job if he has four years of college under his belt. Many people don't look upon hard work as good work anymore. The result is that we have an aging skilled work force and few young people willing to fill the gaps. We look for the best we can get, and that is sometimes not so good.

When it comes to safety, it is critical on a construction project. In the end, it is up to the worker to be safe, to look out for himself and for others. We train our people to be safe, we tell them the long-term benefits of safety, and we watch out for them. However, we cannot watch them 100% of the time. To say the company, or management, doesn't care is crap. Let's look at this on a base level - Management cares about money. Safety saves money. A hurt worker costs money to rehabilitate, does not produce, and causes loss of productivity in other workers. Honestly, lots of time, it is bravado or simple laziness that leads to accidents, and that is tough to combat on a person to person basis.

If you know construction, you know that falls, electrocutions, crushed-by and hit-by are the big killers (actually, driving is the biggest killer of all, but most of it is not covered by OSHA regulations). All of these are fairly simple to protect against. Safety is getting better all the time. We need workers not only to be safe but to also be healthy. We need workers to wear sunscreen (as mentioned in comments above), to slow down, and to stretch before and after work.

Cutting corners is a conception that dogs the industry. Does it happen? Yes. Is it always done with forethought? No. Architects, Owners, Engineers, Contractors, Inspectors, Suppliers - all the way down to the worker and laborer, can cut corners, be sloppy, or just not do something right. This happens in all industries. It is better to do it right one time than to do it wrong, tear it out, then do it right. Labor is the most expensive thing in construction, and all contractors know this. We want to do it once, and leave for the next job.

Contracting is at its core risk management. The Owner subrogates risk to the Contractor - the riskier the job, the more it costs. If you have a sloppy Architect or a shady Owner, expect that the job will cost more because the risk involved is higher. What would I change about the design of projects? I would change the amount of time the Owner and Designer put into the project before they let it for bids. Think of this as 'A stich in time, saves 9.' The few hours spent carefully coordinating a project's design on the front end saves hundreds of man-hours, tens of thousands of dollars, and untold frustration in the course of the project.

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John

It is disappointing to me that most of us tend to make negative assumptions about those of opposing views. Union supporters are bad, non-union stupid, contractors/employers greedy and threating, etc. It has been my experience that there are pros and cons to most every perspective. For example,unions offer the benefit of a structured training system, open shops protect our freedoom of choice, contractors/employers make the investments and take the risk of funding a business with the hope of turning a profit. I have had the priviledge of interacting with all of these types of people, from struggling foriegn day laborer to multi-millionaire businessman and have found that virtually all stereotypes are grossly inaccurate. Perhaps if we dispense with the stereotypes and look for the benefits of each position we can improve the industry for everyone! Thank you for the freedom to express my opinion.

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Tom Kelly

Stephen,

Not sure what you are getting at. I worked in California with crews that were mostly Mexican and Mexican American and my union in New York the Sandhogs, has been half black for a hundred years. In both situations we referred to ourselves always, as brothers. As for spinach and grilled chicken i think they have both those ingredients in the plains states and the south and even in Oklahoma. You make the salad by tossing them in the same bowl. Not exactly caviar. The point is that wherever you work construction the job is hard. By joining together as brother and sister members of a union your voice becomes louder and your position stronger.
The only true bigotry I saw on job sites was not against a person for geography or ethnicity or gender - it was against those who did not pull their weight - thus making it harder for the man or woman besides them. If you want to begrudge us in New York for fighting hard to make sure we get our fair share of the money being made on a project that is your right. I have worked on a twenty hour concrete pour - the first eight i was paid straight time, the second eight - double time and the next four hours were at triple time. I would only hope those folks in OK get the same or more.

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Davey

@21, yes, I like all those things and thank you to my dying day for them. I would never have thought to ask for those things if the union hadn't done it first. Clearly, the construcion workers interviewed here are skilled workers and it is reasonable for them to be compensated as they are. I'll stipulate that their work is superior and this does seem to be an instance where the union adds value to the finished product.

And then there's Detroit. Unions forced the automakers to set up a plan that pays laid off workers full salary for years. Repeated strikes. Shoddy quality, until recent years. These folks were paid $60, $70 an hour in wages and benefits to stand on a line and turn a screw and now the Big Three are just the Detroit Three That are Left.

The union drove Eastern Airlines out of business, extending a strike forever simply because the rank and file had a distaste for the CEO at the time. I had a front row seat for that one, so don't tell me that I'm wrong about that.

It seems that unionized construction may work better because a constuction project in New York is not subject to global labor pressures (although it would be subject to competing globally for materials). A guy in China can't erect a building in Manhattan. Meh.

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Garbanzo

For all the union fanboys out there, a lot of construction outside of New York occurs with non-union labor and you don't see scores of workers dying or buildings (or cranes) falling over on a frequent basis. My father has managed $100 million construction jobs in both union and non-union environments. He says that the quality of labor on union jobs is better, but the price is sometimes more than two to one (i.e., you could achieve the same quality at lower prices by providing a bit more supervision on non-union jobs). Also, unions aren't the most diverse organizations among and have been rightfully accused of locking minorities out (in the U.S., a majority of non-union construction jobs are held by Hispanics, but not on union jobs). Finally, people wonder about the price of construction in NYC, but when crane operators make $150K scale, electricians are billing at $93/hr (Local 3 of the IBEW), and lightly skilled laborers are making close to $100K including lavish benefits, you know who's getting rich regardless of where the market goes.

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Stephen

Dan #7,

I've worked a few jobs in my day and I've seen 2 union boys die, and no one else. A sticker with a number on the back of your hat and on the glass of your truck doesn't keep you from falling off a 3 story building onto your face.

Stephen

Like stated previously Annika only wrote about half the picture. Next time she wants to know what the life of a construction worker is like she should compare the experiences of an NYC worker who makes 100k per year, to a worker in the South or the plains states who does the same job for 25k. Actually, if she wanted a decent comparison, she would have conducted the interview in Spanish. If she had gone to any job site other than job's on the East Coast and she would have that gringos are outnumbered. She should come down to OK during a 20 hour slab pour (after a two hour bus ride to the site at 2300). I guarantee no one will have heard of the Freakonomics blog and no one will be eating a spinach salad with grilled chicken. Instead she would find ham sandwiches and homemade burritos, but mostly burritos.

roquo

Dude, Annika is hot!!!!!

UnknownPriestKiller

It seems to me that a lot of people with visible work put a lot of thought into it before hand.
Recently I discovered a rant on quite a respected figure in the tattoo community's Myspace. I say rant, it was more like pure venomous hatred.
It would seem that some find young people with visible ink, impatient and disrespectful, and they must all just think it's cool to have visible work.
I'm 23, My first tattoo was on my shoulder, then my wrists, then I got a full sleeve. Then I moved to my hands, then neck and I also have a large part of my leg tattooed.
It took me about two years to get the opportunity to get my hand tattooed by my idol, and then my neck by an artist I greatly admire, a lot of time, effort and thought was put into both of these.
Even though I'm somewhat older and do have a fair bit of coverage, I might still be classed as young and "under-tattooed" to have such visible work, and I can't help but think that's kinda crazy!
Sure I've seen some 18 year olds with kanji on their necks or poorly executed skulls on their hands, and you can almost tell they rushed into it, wanting everyone to see their new work as clearly as possible, and fine that to me is impatient and maybe even attention seeking.
Basically what I'm trying to say is that not everyone who has visible work is disrespectful to the art, some people invest a great deal of time, money and effort into getting that particular location inked with the highest standard work possible.
It's kinda funny to find prejudice within a community that tries so hard to divert it away from itself.

Thoughts?

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IronHead433

LIVE UNION / WORK BETTER

suevan1

All those anti-union comments have obviously come from people who have had the luxury of never needing one.

student

I would wax praises of the union, too, if I got paid the equivalent of $100,000 plus including benefts for a job that, while certainly difficult, does not require a high school education. This is not to say that construction workers don't have my respect for the hard work they do. However, any equivalent job with those required set of skills would pay significantly less, were their salaries not artificially inflated. Their gain is other laborers' loss.

lboyd

I can't help but say that one can go further. Look at coal mining. The death rate has risen considerably. Mostly these big disasters have been in nonunion mines. I worked in both nonunion mines and union mines and the work was overwhelmingly safer, had better benefits, and better pay. On other thing, union members are more likely to talk to you than nonunion members. Because they are not going to be fired for what they say. Add to this that nonunion workers are often directed to do work that they know is unsafe and possibly illegal. Thus they can either say "Yeh! this job isn't safe." And be fired, or lie and say that the job is safe.

Tina

For the people who work in construction, then I will be glad to hear your opinions on the validity of this article...

For the rest of you who do not work in construction and refuse to believe that anything except what you think is right, can it! I am sure that you have a much better idea of how the industry you work in is run, and maybe in your industry unions are useless. However, none of these construction people have attempted to decide whats best for you, so maybe you don't know whats best for them.

That being said, in general, I don't think unions are the answer for most workers. Food service, retail worker, and office personnel unions tend to do more harm than good; however, manufacturing, construction, teacher, transportation, and many others do have a desirable outcome for their members.

I hope that more of these types of interviews will be posted because I enjoyed getting an insider's view of this industry. i would like to suggest one: interview some of the ny times reporters from all aspects of the paper such as international, white house/political, lifestyles, etc. because I would like to hear about the journalists perspective on being a journalist/reporter.

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Mike D

If corporate America is so wonderful, why are we bleeding jobs overseas. Maybe the union-haters should walk into their bosses' office later and ask for a pay cut - so the company can increase the CEO's
pay. Or even better, suggest that the boss outsource their job overseas and get a minimum-wage job at Walmart instead. Or even better, suggest that your neighbor move out and rent his house to illegal immigrant non-union workers (2 or 3 to a room) so he can still pay the huge tax bill we all suffer in the NY metro area.

tribrix

I'm often one to say that Unions in this country have to some extent, outlived their usefulness (ask former Eastern Airlines employees). Speaking as a former union member though, workplace saftey is one area where they will always benefit not only their members, but especially in construction, all of us, and we should thank them for it.

michael

On the whole an informative piece, but how quickly this turned into a comments-based debate on Unions!

In response to previous posters, I duly acknowledge many of the great benefits that Unions have won us all over the last 100 years, and the laws that resulted from their struggle.

However, it is my personal experience that many unions of today are parasitic and serve only themselves. It saddens me how fall they have fallen, where they do so far to protect members who verge on criminal negligence in the performance of their duties...

I could go on, the TWA alone could fill volumes... And no, I'm not a manager etc.

-Michael, who also works hard for a living

dan

yeah, these guys seem to like their union, must be because its what keeps them alive.

sure lots of people don't join unions, because the companies they work for hire million dollar union busting firms to scare them out of it.