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Against NY’s Scaffold Law? Worker Safety Is a Basic Human Right

Friday, February 24th, 2017

Cutting corners at the risk of employees’ lives? Shocking, but it’s been argued as recently as late last month.

Recently, two letters to the editor in Crain’s New York highlighted opposing sides to New York’s Labor Law Section 240 (popularly known as the “Scaffold Law”) which holds employers responsible when workers are injured in scaffold-related incidents. The first letter “Design-build, yes, but reform scaffold law, too” argues that the Scaffold Law raises infrastructure cost, making it tough for New York to compete with other states in new construction projects.

Soon afterwards, in an opposing letter “Tired rhetoric ignores benefits of scaffold law,” Mike McGuire, Director of Mason Tenders District Council of Greater New York PAC, points out that safety violations are still prevalent in the majority of construction fatality sites (over 90% in 2015) and rightfully says “You can’t put a price on worker safety.”

Big business’ hollow complaints about the Scaffold Law somehow significantly chilling construction activity are becoming almost comical. The law has been in place, in one form or another, for over 100 years in New York. So it should be obvious to everyone that this important worker safety law hasn’t stopped New York from being a perennial hotbed of construction activity.

Also, it’s depressing, really, that we are again questioning the Scaffold Law shortly after NYCOSH released its latest study, titled Deadly Skyline, delving into the rising fatal injury rates of construction workers in New York. From 2006 to 2015, 464 workers died construction-related deaths in New York State alone. If anything, the study showed that the laws are still too lenient.

From 2011 to 2015, falls – the biggest hazard to construction workers – accounted for 49.1% and 59.4% of construction-related deaths in New York State and New York City respectively. Most falls can often be prevented with proper construction of scaffolding and adherence to OSHA regulations like mandating personal protective equipment. Appallingly, the majority of deaths occurred on sites that had violated OSHA regulations.

Imagine a world where worker safety is top priority. Contractors and subcontractors would plan their operations, construction sites, equipment, and processes to reduce instances of worker injury. That’s the way it should be. Cutting corners on worker safety to maximize profits is callous in this day and age.

Additionally, various studies have shown that promoting worker happiness actually helps the company’s bottom line. A recent study from University of Warwick saw that happy workers were more productive. We couldn’t have said it better than Simon Sinek, who famously espoused the value of putting workers first: “The irony is when our top priority is to take care of our people, our people will take care of the numbers.”

Many of us don’t worry about going to work and never returning to our family. In the construction sector, this is a very real and unfortunate reality, especially for immigrant and minority workers hired by non-union contractors.

In the winter of 2014, construction worker Claudio Patiño fell and was fatally wounded on the job. His widow later confided to New York Times that her husband was scared for his life while working on the job in icy conditions. “He told me, ‘It’s a miracle we’re alive.'”

In a more recent and highly-publicized incident, construction worker Carlos Moncayo was buried alive in a trench moments after a safety inspector warned that the trench was unsafe. Harco Construction, the non-union general contractor that employed Moncayo, failed to ensure that no worker was inside the trench. What is more tragic about the incident is that Moncayo’s death was wholly preventable.

For an industry that employs 3% of the total workforce, the construction sector accounts for 34% of all workplace deaths in New York City in 2015. As the building boom is expected to continue this year and into 2018, we want to ensure that our state and city legislation continually promotes the safety of its workforce.

We are proud to be part of New York, a state that embraces a culture of belonging and values basic human rights. With the Scaffold Law, the Empire State serves as an example for others to follow.

To Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio: we continue to hope that changes to our current legislation, if any, would only further promote worker safety, rather than imperil it. The tragic deaths of Carlos Moncayo, Claudio Patiño, and over 400 other workers in the past ten years should not be in vain. We need to hold employers accountable when accidents on construction sites lead to employee injuries and deaths.

Let’s not backtrack on progress.


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