New York Scaffold Law Protects Construction Workers From Fall Risks

The New York Scaffold Law is unique in its height-related protections for construction workers.

Construction workers have long had special protection under the New York Scaffold Law against the risks of working on and around high-rise buildings, skyscrapers and bridges. The law promotes construction safety when there is risk of elevation-related harm by imposing absolute liability on contractors, property owners and their agents for failing to provide required safety equipment, resulting in worker injury or death.

It makes sense. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration says on its website that the construction industry has the highest worker fatality rate of any industry, and that within construction work, falls "consistently" cause the most deaths.

The density of the Big Apple has long forced the city to grow up toward the sky. According to SkyscraperPage.com, New York City ranks number one in the world for the number of high-rises at close to 6,000.

State officials recognized early on the danger of heights to the New York construction worker, enacting the first Scaffold Law in 1885. The legislation was a reaction to the horror of gravity-related incidents like falls, and falling objects striking workers at construction sites, especially in New York City.

While the law has been amended, its basic protections have stood the test of time and remain, as does the need for them to force those in control of dangerous construction sites to provide safe work places, including safety equipment for relatively powerless workers facing risks related to heights, despite commercial pressure to cut corners at the cost of worker safety.

Scaffold Law Overview

Generally the accidents covered by the Scaffold Law involve workers falling from a height or workers injured by falling objects. The statute's protection is not limited to accidents involving scaffolds, but also includes ladders, hoists and other safety devices.

(Owners of one- or two-family homes are exempt when they hire out the work, giving up control to the contractor.)

Workers (even most undocumented workers) are covered when performing the following enumerated activities vis-à-vis a building or structure:

  • Erection
  • Demolition
  • Repairing
  • Altering
  • Painting
  • Cleaning
  • Pointing

To perform these work activities, the responsible parties shall provide workers with the following safety devices, "operated as to give proper protection:"

  • Scaffolding
  • Hoists
  • Stays
  • Ladders
  • Slings
  • Hangers
  • Blocks
  • Pulleys
  • Braces
  • Irons
  • Ropes
  • And similar devices

Each of these devices is used to protect workers either from falling from a height or from being struck by falling objects.

If the responsible parties fail to provide required safety equipment, or install or direct the use of such devices in an unsafe manner, they would be liable in money damages for injury and death caused by that failure. Damages may include lost past and future wages, pain and suffering, medical costs and more.

If the injured worker (or the survivors of a deceased worker) can show that the contractor or owner breached its Scaffold Law duties and thereby caused worker injury, liability attaches. Once it has been established that a violation of the statute was responsible for the worker's injury, it is no defense to claim that the injured worker may also have been partly at fault.

Liability does not attach if the worker was completely responsible for the injury (which by definition means there was no negligence or breach by the contractor or owner) or if appropriate safety equipment was provided and the worker, although aware of the safety devices and aware that he or she was expected to use them, chose for no good reason not to do so.

Talk To An Attorney

If you are a New York construction worker injured in a height-related incident, contact an experienced attorney. In New York City, the construction injury attorneys at Arye, Lustig & Sassower, P.C., represent clients in Scaffold Law cases and related matters.

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