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A Safe Workplace: What does it mean in the eyes of the law?

Federal and state labor laws require employers to provide a 'safe workplace.' But what does that mean in the context of construction work? After all, construction involves many dangers-working at elevated heights, underground, in confined spaces, blasting and excavating, hoisting, lifting, cutting, sawing, electrical wiring and operating powerful machinery. And, unfortunately, the dangers are matched with a significant number of construction workers injured and killed on the job. In fact, construction workers had a fatal work injury rate nearly three times that of all workers in the United States in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. And three of the ten highest fatal injury jobs were in the construction field: roofers (34.7 per 100,000 full-time workers); structural iron and steel workers (30.3); and laborers (18.3). The leading cause of construction fatalities were falls (and construction workers actually made up almost half of all fatal falls in private industry), followed by transportation-related events, contact with objects and equipment and then exposure to harmful substances and environments.

The 'safe workplace' laws do not mean that construction work not be done at heights or with heavy and powerful equipment. But, given these dangers, the 'safe workplace' laws mean that construction industry employers-and site owners and general contractors-have to do more to protect construction workers and keep them safe. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) (part of the U.S. Department of Labor) imposes federal safety standards and requires that construction workplaces comply with these standards. In addition to meeting OSHA standards, New York construction sites must comply with the New York Labor Law, which requires that owners and contractors take measures to ensure the workplace and work methods are safe. The State Industrial Code additionally imposes specific safety standards on the various types of construction work. Workplaces found to be in violation of federal or State requirements may be fined, or shut down until compliance is achieved. Unfortunately, for workers injured on the site, fines are of little help and usually too little, too late. Oversight from regulatory agencies also helps, but safety standards too often still take a backseat to profit. Does an injured worker that is victimized by an unsafe worksite have any recourse? Fortunately, the New York Labor Law also permits injured workers to be compensated for their injuries. That means that if the worksite did not comply with the safety rules and a worker was hurt or killed, the worker or his family can bring a lawsuit to recover financial compensation for the injuries and losses from the owners and contractors in charge of the construction site.

The safe workplace laws cover several aspects of construction work-the physical site, including the area where the work is being performed (even as it changes through the construction, renovation or demolition work) as well as access to and from the work area; and the manner in which the work is performed, including the materials and equipment used, the use of safety devices, the methods and practices employed to perform the work, the training and supervision of workers.

The physical worksite must be cleared of hazards, which can mean that debris must be timely cleared and cleaned, that equipment and materials be properly stored when not in use, that walking surfaces be made safe for walking. And even though construction worksites are often made up of temporary structures and pieces of the permanent structures being built, all must meet safety standards: flooring and platforms that workers stand on must be secured; items being hoisted or situated overhead must be secured to prevent them from falling onto workers below; the structure itself must be secured to prevent collapse even while it is being dismantled or built. Workers must also be given a safe way to get to the work area, including areas that are elevated, underground or in confined or hard to access spaces.

Equipment and materials must be inspected and must be up to federal and State standards. Equipment not only includes tools used in the work, but also tools used to position workers and/or materials, such as scaffolds, ladders, cranes, hoists, shoring. Safety regulations also require that workers be properly trained and supervised, especially in the use of certain equipment, such as cranes and explosives for blasting. Flagmen or other workers may also be required in the use of some machinery to assist the operator. Workers should be instructed as to the proper and safe means of performing work at the site.

Safety devices must be provided to workers and available for them at the jobsite. Safety devices that are required may depend on the work being done, but can include items like goggles, hardhats, harnesses and life lines, as well as items like proper anchor or tie off points, proper ladders for the type of work being performed, proper railings on scaffolds and other elevated surfaces and stairs, barricades or other types of blockades to prevent workers from falling or stumbling on hazards. To comply with these requirements, safety devices must not only be on the site and available to workers, but must be in working condition. Worksites must also be inspected to make sure workers are properly using safety devices.

Despite federal, state and local regulations pertaining to work and equipment at construction sites, devastating accidents still happen far too often. Block O'Toole & Murphy fights to protect the rights of those injured, or tragically killed, in construction accidents. We are committed to helping injured construction workers and their families during a very difficult time. Our clients appreciate the care, attention and expertise we bring to their cases. Our attorneys not only have extensive knowledge and experience in this area of law, but are at the forefront of the laws' changes and developments. The New York Labor Law enables injured workers to recover from site owners and general contractors who have violated the law and permits injured workers or family members of a killed worker to seek compensation for their significant losses, including medical expenses, wages lost, and extreme pain and suffering. Block O'Toole & Murphy works to maximize our clients' recovery under the law and to bring comfort, support and relief to their sad stories.