Scaffold Falls: What Are a Worker's Legal Rights?

Scaffold accidents are a dangerous reality when it comes to construction work. Construction workers in New York City are frequently asked to work at dangerous heights and scaffolds are often the preferred method of doing so. Thankfully, New York State Labor Law protects workers involved in gravity-related accidents.

Specifically, Labor Law Section 240(1), also known as the "Scaffold Law," dictates that owners and general contractors of construction sites must provide workers with the proper fall protection equipment when they are required to work at certain heights. Workers should understand that there are laws which protect them when they are doing their job elevated on a scaffold, according to the Industrial Code of the State of New York and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). Construction workers have a legal right to a safe workplace that their employers are obligated to provide. In the case of a gravity-related construction accident, the victim should explore whether Labor Law Section § 240(1), §241(6) or any other worker safety law applies.

Federal and New York State Regulations

Both federal and state rules and regulations exist with the purpose of protecting construction workers who are placed at risk while on the job. OSHA sets federal standards for safe scaffold use; these standards are outlined in detail in their Guide to Scaffold Use in the Construction Industry.

Of these regulations, perhaps one of the most important, and most frequently violated, is fall protection. Fall protection refers to guardrail systems and personal fall arrest systems which include components like harnesses, snap hooks, lifelines, and anchorage points. Employers are required to provide adequate fall protection for each individual worker on scaffolds more than 10 feet above a lower level. Different types of scaffolds call for different types of fall protection. For example, single-point and two-point suspension scaffolds require both a personal fall arrest system and a guardrail system while a supported scaffold just requires one or the other. Every employee has a right to these protection systems.

Falling objects are another large concern when working with scaffolds. To protect workers from being severely injured by a falling object, employers must install toeboards, screens, guardrail systems, debris nets, etc. Additionally, workers should wear hardhats to protect their heads when they are on a worksite.

Workers are entitled to properly erected and maintained scaffolds with proper and secure guardrails installed along any open sides. Before being allowed to work on a scaffold, all employees must be properly trained. Workers who erect scaffolds must be trained by a "competent person," defined as a person "who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings or working conditions... and who has authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them." In general, a competent person is required for scaffolding to:

  • Direct employees working with scaffolding
  • Determine if conditions are safe for scaffold work, such as wind conditions and the use of fall arrest systems or wind screens
  • Train employees working with scaffolding
  • Inspect scaffolds and scaffold components regularly
  • Determine if a scaffold will be structurally sound when using components from different manufacturers

Additionally, scaffolds must have secure planking on which the worker will stand while he/she works. This planking must be able to support its own weight and at least four times the intended load. Each scaffold walkway must be at least 18 inches wide. On walkways that are less than 18 inches wide, workers must be protected by either guardrails or personal fall arrest systems. Work platforms cannot be cluttered with debris.

While much of the responsibility falls on the entities or individuals who are best able to impact safety at a jobsite, like a general contractor, employer, or property owner, it is important that employees recognize their obligation to adhere to all safety regulations. Workers should properly use all personal protection equipment that they are provided with and follow all protocol they are taught in their training. An injured worker who chooses to perform their job in an unsafe way may be held accountable under the law.

What is the Scaffold Law?

Labor Law 240(1) protects construction workers who are injured as a result of an accident related to elevation. This statute can be applied to falls from heights or workers falling object accidents in the workplace. Various requirements must be met to enact the statute's protections. These include:

  • Labor Law 240 exempts owners of one and two-family homes who do not direct or control the work being done.

    If an owner is having a one or two-family home constructed and hires a general contractor to perform the construction work, then the owner cannot be held liable. However, if the owner is controlling or directing the work being done, then they may be found liable under this statute. Owners of 3-family homes, apartment buildings, and commercial buildings are not exempt from this law.

  • The work being performed must be done on a "structure."

    The word "structure" generally refers to a building. However, it can also refer to a boat, railcar, tunnel, bridge, garage, or any other object that has been put together from parts. A tree, for example, is not considered a structure. Therefore, if a landscaper were to be injured after falling from a ladder while trimming a tree, they would not be protected by the Scaffold Law.

  • The type of work must fall under one of the specified types of construction work.

    The statute specifically names the types of work that are protected, which are: erection, demolition, repairing, altering, painting, cleaning, pointing of a building or structure, and the erection of scaffolding, hoists, stays, ladders, slings, hangers, blocks, pulleys, braces, irons, ropes, and other devices that provide employees with protection.

  • The accident must involve the force of gravity.

    In order for this statute to apply, the accident must either involve a worker injured in a fall or a worker injured by a falling object. However, an object falling on a worker must be the result of the failure of an elevation device, such as a scaffold, elevator, or pulley. A negligent action by a coworker is not covered under this statute. For example, a construction worker dropping a cell phone onto another worker from a height would not fall under this statute.

  • The worker involved must be a construction worker.

    This statute only serves to protect construction workers. If you are a pedestrian that was injured by a falling object, you cannot file a claim under Labor Law 240(1).

In many cases, decisions involving Labor Law 240(1) are made in trial courts or appellate courts. Because these cases can be difficult to argue, accident victims may want to work with a personal injury lawyer with experience in labor law.

Legal Help for Scaffold Accident Victims

The construction accident lawyers at Block O'Toole & Murphy fight to protect the rights of those injured, or tragically killed, in construction scaffold-related accidents. We are committed to helping injured construction workers and their families during a very difficult time.

If a construction worker is injured or killed after a scaffold accident or any work related accident, the law permits injured workers or family members of a killed worker to seek compensation for significant losses, including medical expenses, lost wages, and past and future pain and suffering. Block O'Toole & Murphy works to maximize our clients' recoveries under the law and to bring comfort, support, and relief to their lives. To speak with one of our lawyers, contact us at 212-736-5300, or fill out our online contact form.

Related scaffolding accident results include:

  • $7,000,000 settlement for a union carpenter who was injured by a metal clamp that fell and struck his face as he worked to dismantle a scaffold
  • $6,000,000 settlement in a case involving a union waterproofer who was suffered herniated discs requiring surgery after falling from an exterior scaffold
  • $5,900,000 settlement for a bricklayer that fell 20 feet onto his head and left side from an unsecured ladder
  • $5,030,572 recovery for a construction worker that was injured when a scaffold tipped over, causing him to fall 25 feet
  • $5,000,000 jury verdict for a carpenter who fell from a scaffold and suffered injuries while attempting to remove a pipe from the ceiling of a Brooklyn building
  • $3,700,000 settlement for an asbestos worker injured after falling from unsecured scaffold planks
  • $2,650,000 settlement for a laborer employed by a scaffold company who was knocked over and pinned down by scaffold components that fell onto him
  • $2,640,000 settlement for a construction worker who suffered a partial finger amputation and spinal injury after the scaffolding he was standing on shifted, causing a drill to fall, lacerate his finger, and knock him into the scaffolding frame
  • $2,200,000 recovery for a laborer who was injured when he fell into an unguarded hole in the floor while attempting to assemble a scaffold
  • $1,950,000 settlement for a union carpenter who sustained rotator cuff tears and injuries to his spine after a falling object cause him to fall from a scaffold

To learn more about our results, please visit the Construction Accident Verdicts and Settlements page on our website.