Section 240 of the New York Labor Law is quite controversial, and if you are involved in any capacity with the construction industry in New York, you need to know about it. Section 240 of the New York Labor Law was originally designed to protect construction workers in New York, but according to a number of recent studies, Section 240 – known commonly as the “Scaffold Law” – is, in fact, having the opposite effect and is putting construction workers at risk. Many observers feel that Section 240 needs to be amended or abolished, and the sooner, the better.
The Scaffold Law first took effect back in 1885, when all contractors still used wooden scaffolding to build high-rises in New York City. The problem is that the Scaffold Law imposes an absolute liability standard on contractors and owners for the special construction hazards associated with scaffolding, heights, and gravity. A plaintiff’s partial or comparative negligence is not an admissible defense.
Thus, if a construction worker in New York falls from a scaffold because, for example, he or she was intoxicated, failed to use recommended safety equipment, disregarded safety instructions, or because the construction worker himself or herself failed to lock the scaffold’s wheels and the scaffold shifted while the worker was on it, under Section 240, contractors and owners are still considered liable for the resulting injuries. Owners and general contractors are automatically liable under the Scaffold Law simply because of their role and status.
DO OTHER STATES HAVE SIMILAR LAWS?
New York is the only state that has a scaffolding law still in effect. Illinois was the last state with a comparable statute, and that state’s lawmakers abolished it more than two decades ago. What was the impact in Illinois of eliminating that state’s scaffolding law? The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that construction site injuries and fatalities in Illinois declined quickly and substantially in the years immediately after the abolition of the Illinois scaffolding law.
Why does a law designed to protect construction workers in New York now, in effect, put construction workers at risk? For starters, New York’s Scaffold Law provides absolutely no incentive for owners and contractors to invest in new construction safety training or new safety equipment. If owners and contractors are going to be held liable for all accidents and injuries – no matter what steps they’ve taken or how much they’ve invested to improve construction site safety – they have no reason to spend more than the minimum on safety equipment or training.
The continuing negative impact of the Scaffold Law on New York’s construction industry should not be underestimated or misunderstood. New York is the only state where builders are held fully accountable for any construction site injury or death related to height or gravity. In fact, New York’s Scaffold Law makes this state one of the least attractive locations for prospective builders anywhere in the nation. If builders have better options, they will build somewhere else. There’s no way to know many thousands of construction jobs are lost to New Yorkers because the Scaffold Law compels builders to build elsewhere.
WHO PAYS FOR THE SCAFFOLD LAW?
There’s more. Because the Scaffold Law so fully exposes builders and contractors to risk, the cost of doing new construction in this state is extraordinarily high. Property owners pay the additional liability insurance for private construction projects. U.S. Representative John J. Faso (R-Kinderhook) tells the New York Post, “A typical single-family home in New York costs anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 more than it would without a wholly one-sided Scaffold Law.”
Property owners are not the only New Yorkers who pay for the Scaffold Law. New York’s taxpayers are stuck with the additional liability insurance costs of public construction projects like schools or infrastructure. Thus, when the taxpayers finance a $2,000,000 new school in this state, as much as half of that cost may be for liability insurance alone – thanks to the Scaffold Law. Research conducted by the Rockefeller Institute of Government indicates that the Scaffold Law costs this state’s taxpayers about $785 million every year.
Builders and contractors must also consider legal fees. New York’s Scaffold Law frequently makes builders and contractors the defendants in personal injury cases in this state. In fact, construction-related injuries and fatalities are continuing to rise in New York City, according to statistics published earlier this year by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health.
IF YOU’RE INJURED DOING CONSTRUCTION WORK, WHERE CAN YOU TURN?
Of course, the details of every construction accident are unique, so a construction worker who is injured on-the-job in or near New York City will need the personalized advice that an experienced New York construction accident lawyer can offer after reviewing the facts in the case. Many injured New York construction workers qualify for benefits through workers’ compensation, but in other cases, a construction accident victim may be able to file a personal injury lawsuit and recover damages for all injury-related medical expenses and lost income.
Almost all of the evidence indicates that eliminating or at least revising the New York Scaffold Law would ease the burden on New York’s taxpayers, increase investments and investment opportunities in our state, and create thousands of jobs in the state’s construction industry while simultaneously working to reduce the overall rate of construction-related injuries and fatalities in New York.
State officials have failed to amend or abolish the Scaffold Act, but Congressman Faso has introduced federal legislation – the “Infrastructure Expansion Act” — that would require all fifty states to use a comparative-negligence standard – rather than imposing absolute liability on builders – for all construction projects that receive tax funding. “Given America’s infrastructure needs,” Representative Faso writes in the New York Post, “we shouldn’t waste a single dollar on excessive liability costs when that money could be better used building tunnels, improving bridges and rebuilding roads.”
Until state or federal officials act, the Scaffold Law may continue to put New York construction workers at risk. If you are a construction worker in New York and you are injured while working, obtain medical treatment at once, report the injury to your foreman or crew boss, and promptly discuss your legal rights and options with an experienced New York construction accident lawyer.