Should New York’s Scaffold Law be Reformed?

It’s an issue that has divided New York City workers, lawmakers and insurance companies for years: how to address New York’s Scaffold Law. Should the law be reformed or should it stay as is or even strengthened? Workplace injury lawyers in New York and other advocates for injured employees say the law protects workers, while some business owners say it’s costly.

New York’s Scaffold Law dates back to 1885 and places all liability on contractors if a worker falls and is injured on the job. The law was intended to safeguard construction workers who worked above the ground as the city grew and skyscrapers were constructed across the Five Boroughs. When a worker is injured, the law states that contractors and owners are held one hundred percent liable for the accident regardless of how the accident occurred.

The issue of this liability has become a hot topic in recent years. Opponents looking to make changes to the state’s Scaffold Law claim the law drives up construction costs and taxes without necessarily improving safety. It is argued that the state’s Scaffold Law contributes to high insurance rates and construction costs that thus damage the economy and prevent business from flourishing. Furthermore, opponents have argued the law costs taxpayers $785 million annually, including as much as $10,000 to the cost of building a new home in New York.

The case against Scaffold Law Reform

However, it is important to note that under current law, when a worker is injured, he or she must show that a violation of the Scaffold Law’s standards occurred and that the violation directly contributed to the injury. Adding a standard of comparative negligence to the bill to determine liability – as suggested by opponents – may only serve to diminish the sense of accountability present at highly dangerous job sites.

Furthermore, workers’ advocates interviewed by the New York Times in 2013 stated that modifying the Scaffold Law would have a profound effect on the safety of minority and immigrant construction workers, which reports indicate accounted for more than 60 percent of fall cases. Minorities and immigrant workers are more likely to work for nonunion companies, according to advocates, which may fail to provide proper safety training or equipment to workers.

From 2003 to 2011, safety advocates reported that 136 falls “from elevation” that killed construction workers in New York and in 2012 alone, at least 14 cases were brought under state labor laws and involved falls from ladders or scaffolding. But despite the amount of accidents and injuries sustained by New York workers, opponents claim that changing the Scaffold Law to better accommodate contractors will create jobs and increase worker safety.

While a combination of relaxed liability laws and more jobs would allow business to flourish and reduce tax costs across the state, there is little doubt that the cost could include the lives of construction workers throughout New York. Most contractors follow all necessary safety procedures to keep their workers safe. When they fail to do so, workers must retain the right to hold them liable for their negligent behavior.

Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano L.L.P.

233 Broadway
New York,
NY 10279

T: 212-341-7900


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