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New York’s Construction Industry Quarrels Over Scaffold Law

F Marie Athey OHST

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F Marie Athey OHST | December 27, 2012 | Comments Off on New York’s Construction Industry Quarrels Over Scaffold Law

scaffold lawDid you know falls are the leading cause of death at construction sites?

According to America’s work site safety watchdog, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an average of 362 fatal falls were recorded per year between 1995 and 1999, with the figure increasing every year since then.

New York’s “Scaffold Law” (officially the Labor Law Sec. 240 of the New York Code), which dates back to the dawn of the skyscraper era, requires property owners and general contractors to provide scaffolds, hoists and harnesses to prevent falls and other elevation-related accidents (falling objects, for instance).

The New York law prevents general contractors and property owners from transferring to subcontractors the obligation to provide the required safety equipment (however, they are allowed to obligate their subcontractors to supply the equipment). In this way, the practice of passing the buck to subcontractors who may have questionable or inadequate safety practices is supposedly eliminated.

The law, however, has drawn criticism from some in the construction industry who find it expensive and burdensome to implement. According to ScaffoldLaw.org (a project of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York), the Scaffold Law increases the construction cost of a new home by an average of $10,000. The site claims that the law prevents contractors from defending themselves in court against negligent workers. It also says the costs of general liability insurance are prohibitively high because of the law—between 300 and 1200 percent higher than in neighboring states.

“This Draconian rule maybe made sense in the regulation-free days in which the earliest skyscrapers were built,” wrote “New York Daily News” columnist Bill Hammond earlier this year.

New York Court of Appeals Judge Robert Smith has said that the scaffold law “imposes liability even on contractors and owners who had nothing to do with the plaintiff’s accident. And where a violation of the statute has caused injury, any fault by the plaintiff contributing to that injury is irrelevant.”

“In many cases, companies have been forced to lay off workers or even turn down projects because of liability costs–and consumers and taxpayers pay for it,” wrote Tom Stebbens, executive director of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York, in a recent letter to the editor of The Daily Freeman newspaper. “For public projects, like schools and bridges, the cost to taxpayers is likely hundreds of millions each year. How can our state rebuild if we can’t afford the cost of construction? New York needs jobs and investment.”

Scaffold Law advocates contend that the protection of the safety and lives of workers (and of pedestrians, too) far outweighs the cost of implementation.

Supporters of the law insist it doesn’t hold the general contractor or property owner strictly and solely liable for an accident involving a worker. They say an injury caused by the worker’s own negligence exempts the property owner from any legal liability. Similarly, a worker injury resulting from the worker not using proper safety equipment available to him or her at the work site is grounds for the general contractor to be exempted from legal liability.

As business and construction groups ramp up efforts to reform the law, advocates point to statistics that show New York to have one of the lowest construction injury and fatality rates in the country.

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