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Seven Things You Should Know About New York's 'Scaffold Law'

Posted on March 28, 2019 by Kelly Wolford
Silhouette of engineer and construction team working safely work load concrete on scaffolding on high rise building.

If you work in construction in New York, you have probably heard about the “Scaffold Law.” The statute, New York Labor Law § 240(1), provides important protections to construction workers and others who work from heights such as roofs, ladders, and scaffolding. As one of New York’s leading construction accident law firms, we believe that these are seven important things you should know about the law:

1. It protects workers who are directly exposed to gravity-related dangers.

The main purpose of New York Labor Law § 240(1) is to ensure that construction site owners and contractors – and their agents – provide specific safety devices to workers who must perform tasks in a location, or in a manner, where they could fall from one level to another. In other words, it protects workers against the dangers they often face when they are directly exposed to the forces of gravity. If an owner, contractor or agent fails to comply with the statute, and a worker suffers injury as a result of that non-compliance, then the worker should have the right to sue the owner, contractor or agent for damages.

2. The law protects workers who are engaged in a wide range of activities.

New York Labor Law § 240(1) provides seven specific categories to which it applies:

  • Erection
  • Demolition
  • Repairing
  • Altering
  • Painting
  • Cleaning
  • Pointing.

If a worker was engaged in one of those listed activities while working on a building or structure, then the statute should apply to the worker. However, even if a worker was not necessarily engaged in one of those activities at the time of injury, the statute may still cover the worker. The worker would need to show that he or she was engaged in work that was “in furtherance of” of an overall project which itself was covered by the statute.

3. A key issue is whether the work was an “integral and necessary part” of a covered activity.

Many people view New York Labor Law § 240(1) as applying to only construction work. However, it actually can apply to a much broader range of workers and activities. If a worker suffers injury due to a violation of New York Labor Law § 240(1), and the worker was engaged in an activity that was not one of the seven specifically listed in the statute, then two key questions must be asked:

  • At the time of injury, was the worker was engaged in an activity that was an “integral and necessary part” of the overall project?
  • Was that overall project one governed by New York Labor Law § 240(1)?

If the answer to those two questions is, “yes,” then the statute should apply to the worker. For example, if a worker falls while cutting a tree, and the tree cutting is part of the overall renovation of a building, then the worker should be covered by the statute and entitled to bring a Scaffold Law claim if his or her injury was caused by a violation of the law.

4. If a worker is engaged in a covered activity, the law requires owners, contractors and their agents to provide certain types of safety devices.

If a worker is engaged in an activity that New York Labor Law § 240(1) covers, then the site owner, contractor and their agents owe two basic duties to the worker:

  • First, they must provide appropriate safety devices for the performance of the work. The statute specifically lists “scaffolding, hoists, stays, ladders, slings, hangers, blocks, pulleys, braces, irons, ropes and other devices.” However, this list should not be read as an exclusive one.
  • Second, they must ensure that those safety devices are “so constructed, placed and operated as to give proper protection” to the worker.

It is important to focus on the specific elevation-related hazard that a worker faces, and whether the owner, contractor or agent has supplied a safety device that is appropriate for that task and ensured that it was properly placed.

5. An accident, alone, is not enough to establish liability under the law.

The fact that a worker suffered injury due to a gravity-related hazard, standing alone, does not give rise to liability under New York Labor Law § 240(1). Instead, the worker must establish that the law was violated. In other words, evidence must show that the site owner, contractor or their agent failed to comply with one or more of the law’s requirements.

Additionally, the worker must show that the violation served as the “proximate cause” of his or her injury. The violation does not have to be the sole cause. Instead, the violation must have somehow contributed to the accident and the worker’s injury.

For example, if a worker falls from a roof, the worker would need to show that the worker should have been provided with a harness or other appropriate safety device as required by New York Labor Law § 240(1). The worker would also need to show that he or she was not provided with such a device, and because the worker lacked such a device, the worker suffered his or her injury.

6. The law imposes “absolute liability” on-site owners and contractors.

The duties that New York Labor Law § 240(1) imposes on site owners, contractors and their agents are “absolute.” In other words, they can be held liable for injuries caused by a violation of the law regardless of whether they exercised any direct supervision or control over the work at the time of the injury. They cannot avoid liability by trying to shift blame for the accident to someone else such as a subcontractor or to the worker.

7. In this sense, New York’s ‘Scaffold Law’ is one of a kind.

The “absolute liability” that New York Labor Law § 240(1) creates for site owners, contractors who violate the law, and in turn cause worker injuries, is a source of controversy. Many critics of the law say that it drives up construction costs. They also point out that no other state has such a law.

However, at Powers & Santola, LLP, we believe that this law is essential. It shows our state’s firm commitment to the protection of workers. Ultimately, the law serves to promote safety in the workplace and helps to prevent accidents that can have a devastating impact on the lives of workers and their families.

Our Experienced New York Construction Accident Lawyers Can Help You

If you suffered injury anywhere in New York due to a suspected Scaffold Law violation, the attorneys of Powers & Santola, LLP, want to help you. You may be eligible to recover damages such as:

  • Medical, hospital and rehabilitative services
  • Loss or impairment of income and fringe benefits
  • Pain and suffering (including loss of enjoyment of life).

Daniel R. Santola, one of our law firm’s founding attorneys, is the author of the leading treatise on construction accident litigation in New York. We can put that knowledge and experience to work for you right away. To learn more and discuss the specific facts of your case, contact us today for a free consultation through any one of our offices in Albany, Rochester or Syracuse.