New York Scaffolding Law Reform: A Step Backward In Worker Safety

On Sept. 17, 2008, a 37-year-old Bronx laborer was removing pipes from a warehouse ceiling when he was instructed to walk across shelving. Unbeknownst to him, the shelving was made of cardboard. It collapsed, causing the laborer to fall 10 to 15 feet. He suffered multiple fractured ribs, herniated disks, and torn shoulder and hip tendons. The laborer claimed that the building owner and general contractor violated New York Labor Law Section 240, among other construction safety laws. He settled his claim for $4.65 million.

New York Labor Law 240, The 'Scaffold Law'

New York Labor Law 240 protects workers from the kind of harm the Bronx laborer experienced. Known as "the scaffold law," it was enacted in 1885 to protect construction workers from scaffolding accidents and other construction falls. It states:

All contractors and owners and their agents, except owners of one- and two-family dwellings who contract for but do not direct or control the work, in the erection, demolition, repairing, altering, painting, cleaning or pointing of a building or structure shall furnish or erect, or cause to be furnished or erected for the performance of such labor, scaffolding, hoists, stays, ladders, slings, hangers, blocks, pulleys, braces, irons, ropes and other devices which shall be constructed, placed and operated as to give proper protection to a person so employed.

It then gives specifics for how scaffolding and staging should be erected. In essence, the law states that contractors and property owners must create safe scaffolding for workers and are liable should a worker fall from unsafe scaffolding.

The New York scaffold law is intended to protect workers from the No. 1 cause of construction deaths: falls. Falls from elevation cause one-third of all construction deaths. In 2011, 251 U.S. construction workers died from falls, many of which involved improper scaffolding and fall protections. By clarifying who is responsible for ensuring workplace safety and reducing fall risks, Labor Law 240 has helped make New York one of the safest states for construction workers.

Yet, as they do every year, corporate lobbyists are trying to take these protections away by asking for New York scaffolding law reform.

What The Opponents Of Labor Law 240 Are Saying

Opponents believe New York's scaffolding law is too rigid. They claim that the law awards negligent and even drunk construction workers. But this is not the truth. The truth is that workers who cause their own accidents by failing to follow directions, ignoring an available safety device or drinking on the job do not recover. The law provides specific defenses to prevent those types of workers from recovering.

Opponents of the law also claim that it has increased the cost of liability insurance, making it challenging for contractors to obtain coverage and build in New York. There is simply no support for this argument at all. In fact, construction in New York is booming, and increasing at an even faster rate than in States that have recently repealed their version of Labor Law 240, such as Illinois.

Why The Law Is Necessary

As New York AFL-CIO President Mario Cilentro explains, "Any burden on businesses under the scaffold law pales in comparison to the burden borne by injured workers - or worse, the widows and orphans left behind."

Bottom line - if contractors and property owners followed the law and provided safety equipment, there would be fewer construction site falls and fewer lawsuits. To be clear, it is only when site owners and contractors violate the law that they can be held accountable through construction accident lawsuits.

Should we take a step backward in workplace safety to protect the bank accounts of contractors and property owners who are unwilling to even offer proof of their so-called diminished profits? Should we remove vital protections for workers like the Bronx laborer we mentioned at the beginning of this article? Is it a good idea to remove protections that decrease the No. 1 cause of construction accident deaths?

Protect New York's construction workers. Fight the "reform."

If you were injured or have lost a loved one in a construction fall caused by unsafe scaffolding, ladders, harnesses or other safety equipment intended to prevent falls, speak with an experienced construction accident attorney about your options for recovering compensation.