NY Scaffold Law Debate Focuses on Insurance Problem and Transparency

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

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The lawyers at Block O’Toole & Murphy have devoted a great deal of time fighting for worker safety. Some of that battle includes making sure that worker safety laws in New York remain strong. The worker safety law that has galvanized a great deal of discussion in New York City and in Albany is the Scaffold Law.

The Scaffold Law is a worker safety law that protects construction workers, particularly those who work in elevated areas. In the most general sense, the law puts the responsibility on developers, property owners and general contractors to make sure that worksites are safe and have the proper equipment. They are held responsible when their failure to comply with the law causes a worker to be seriously injured or killed.

A failure to comply with the law often involves workers falling because they were not provided fall protection. Other frequent issues involve unsteady scaffolds collapsing, unsecured ladders toppling while workers were on them, or a steel pipe that was unsafely being hoisted falling and crushing a worker. Other scenarios include crane accidents, building collapses and falls from roofs.

There are many other examples. The point is that entities capable of controlling the worksite and implementing safety regulations (such as owners and general contractors) are held responsible by the law when they fail to comply with safety laws.

An article in the Labor Press takes aim at Scaffold Law opponents, particularly the insurance industry. Insurance premiums for New York construction companies have soared in recent years. This puzzles many industry experts since New York continues to be one of the safest states in the nation when it comes to construction safety. In fact, studies indicate that New York has the most construction in the United States and is the 6th safest state in the country. Additionally, the number of serious construction accidents and fatalities has plummeted in recent years.

Nevertheless, despite safer projects and fewer accidents, insurance premiums continue to rise. The reaction to this has been to attack the worker safety laws and lament the impact of the Scaffold Law. Some critics claim that the law costs the private sector 1.5 billion annually. Thus far, they have failed to provide any data to corroborate this claim.

The Scaffold Law has been around for more than a century. If construction accidents are down and serious injuries and fatalities at work sites are down, and the law remains in place, how is it that this law is not responsible for this dramatic change? How is it that insurance premiums continue to increase? Both seem like fair questions.

Some Scaffold Law supporters have forcefully suggested that a watering down of worker safety laws is not the right approach. In the article from the Labor Press, Steve McInnis, President of the New York City District County of Carpenters (NYCDCC) shares his thoughts: “I think there is an insurance problem – I’ll agree to that . . . I think we need to have a more comprehensive discussion about insurance and costs.” McInnis later suggests that the solution has to involve insurance transparency that includes greater scrutiny of the industry to explain the curious rise in insurance premiums. He claims that “stripping worker protections as some kind of panacea is ridiculous.”

Insurance transparency is something we have discussed in the past. Everyone involved in this discussion, if they are entering the debate with an open mind, should be aiming for a just solution. The ideal is to allow companies access to jobs and projects with an economic and efficient way to acquire insurance coupled with a safe environment for people to work in.

If accidents are down, premiums should go down, not up. Members of the insurance industry need to provide access to their books to restore some public trust in their industry.

There is pending legislation in the New York Legislature that would compel the insurance industry to allow books to be examined by an independent agency. This would be part of an effort to better understand the insurance industry’s vantage point and explain why costs continue to surge. There will either be a logical explanation or it will be about greed. We may find out. The insurance industry is fighting hard against transparency. Perhaps that reflects what the explanation will be. We will see.

Block O’Toole & Murphy has a long and proud tradition of fighting on behalf of construction workers. They have recovered more than $750,000,000 in verdicts and settlements for their injured clients. You can learn more about the firm by reviewing their website at www.blockotoole.com. You may also call them for a free consultation at 212-736-5300.


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