Know Your Rights: Protect the NY Scaffold Law
One of the earliest and best worker protection statutes in New York State is under attack from the insurance lobby
For over 130 years, the NY Scaffold Law (Labor Law §240 and §241) protected some of the most vulnerable workers in this state from the reckless actions of property owners and general contractors. Enacted during a time when the construction industry was booming and the only place to build was “up”, employers didn’t hesitate to use the cheapest subcontractors who cut corners on workers safety. New York Lawmakers decided that the workers doing this work needed special protection from the exploitation of employers, who all too often ignored worker safety and continued to put workers lives and livelihoods at risk.
What the NY Scaffold Law basically states is that if an employee is injured working on an elevated platform, ladder or height on a building or property (other than a single or two family residence) there will be “Absolute” liability on the part of the general contractor and property owner. “Absolute” liability means that the contractor cannot claim that the injured worker was at fault for the injury. Prior to the enactment of that statute, employers would merely claim that the worker was injured as a result of their own fault. The Scaffold Law eliminates that defense and makes it likely for the injured worker to win any lawsuit brought. Thereafter, all the worker had to do to win a lawsuit was prove that he was injured while working at an elevation. The whole idea behind the “Scaffold Law” is to make sure that property owners and general contractors make certain that the highest possible safety standards are used in the construction industry. The Scaffold Law has been one of the earliest and greatest worker safety successes in that a significant number of height-related injuries have been avoided.
Despite such success, the Scaffold Law has constantly been the target of “reform” in New York State. The lobbyists and insurance companies working for property owners and general contractors continuously work to weaken or eliminate such protections. They argue that, due to the Scaffold Law, insurance premiums raise the cost of construction in New York State. The truth of the matter is that without the Scaffold Law construction sites would become more and more dangerous. Cost cutting and greed would result in much more dangerous workplaces. The injuries sustained by workers in accidents resulting from scaffolds and heights are generally the most serious. Injured workers deserve to be compensated for these often life-altering, career-ending and often times’ fatal injuries. General contractors and landowners often argue that the injured worker is protected by Workers’ Compensation benefits and should not be able to bring a personal injury lawsuit too. Aside from the fact that the landowners and general contractors get a credit for any payments made to the injured worker by Workers’ Compensation, those payments are made by the injured worker's direct employer and not the general contractor or landowner. Consequently, if Workers’ Compensation benefits are the injured workers only recourse, there is absolutely no incentive on the part of the general contractor or landowner to demand the highest possible safety procedures on their work site.
The Scaffold Law has been an effective protection for workers for over 130 years and should remain so in New York State.
Richard Brandenstein is a partner at Fusco, Brandenstein, & Rada specializing in Administrative Law in the areas of New York State Workers’ Compensation, New York State Disability, as well as workplace discrimination, general litigation, and the general practice of law, including matrimonial.