For the thousands of workers in New York who climb ladders and scaffolds each day, the risk of falling is a constant.
Recently, contractors, property owners and insurance giants have waged a war to weaken New York’s existing scaffold law, disregarding the safety of workers and the risks they take every day to perform their jobs far above the ground.
At issue: An effective scaffold law
The current scaffold law dates to the late 1800s when advances in construction techniques allowed the building of the early skyscrapers. Construction workers faced new risks as they climbed scaffolds into the sky to make New York City what it is today. The law was an effort to protect them, and it has done so by holding contractors and developers responsible for the safety of job sites.
Although the law has gone through various changes since 1885, its premise is the same: to keep workers safe.
Under the scaffold law, employers and property owners can be held responsible when a construction worker is hurt from a gravity related injury due to ineffectual safety measures. The law places the responsibility of keeping scaffold workers safe squarely on the shoulders of their employers and the owners of the site, as it should be.
The campaign to change the current law is being led by those who want the benefit of the workers’ labor without bearing the responsibility for their safety. Contractors and property owners say the law has led to skyrocketing insurance rates and an environment where nearly any fall injury is met with a disproportionate financial reward. Interestingly, their claims are supported by the insurance companies and their teams of lobbyists who, rather than looking at how to lower rates, have joined in the fight to absolve those in charge of responsibility.
Furthermore, the law is designed to prevent recovery for injury caused by the injured parties own negligence. If a contractor or property owner can establish that the accident was not caused by a violation of the statute, or that the violation was not a proximate cause of the accident, then the contractor or property owner cannot be liable.
The law itself does not apply to one- and two-family homes where the owner does not direct or control the work. However, if a homeowner acts as his or her own general contractor and hires and supervises the various sub-contractors, then he or she may be found liable under this statute.
Opponents would tell you that New York’s law is the only one like it in the country. But that is incorrect. At least seven other states have similar or even more restrictive laws, according to Gary La Barbera of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York.
Opponents also point to Illinois, which repealed their scaffold law in 1995, saying that state’s construction industry has flourished since the repeal. Again, they are wrong. La Barbera says that Illinois has lost 35,000 jobs since the repeal, whereas New York has gained 60,000. Further, New York has surpassed Illinois in construction growth in each of the past 15 years.
Why it matters
Falls are the leading cause of death in construction work. In 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 751 construction casualties, 35% of which were due to fall accidents. While these accidents can happen when workers fall from roofs or even trip on the ground, a great number are caused when construction workers fall from ladders and scaffolds.
New York is like no other state—with far more skyscrapers and tall buildings. Construction work is dangerous no matter where you are, but the risks are very different when you are working high above the ground.
Construction can be a good job. A tradesman can make a decent living and provide for his family. But if a significant injury happens, it can rob him of his livelihood.
Often these accidents can be directly traced to safety deficiencies on the job. The worker may go to work each day and follow policy and procedures to ensure he arrives home safely each night, but if the contractor or property owner fails to provide a safe environment, including scaffolds, all his care and work is in vain.
The current scaffold law works as it should, to protect those that build our homes, offices, hospitals, schools and more. And the current scaffold law should remain as written.