July 2, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
Editor’s Note: The following is part of an ongoing LaborPress series examining the ways in which efforts to weaken New York’s Scaffold Law jeopardize workers.
New York, NY – Construction workers already have the most dangerous job in the city, and run the risk of serious injury or death every time they step onto a building scaffold. But safety watchdogs say that efforts to weaken Labor Law 240 – the measure designed to protect men and women working at dangerous heights – will undoubtably lead to even more terrible accidents happening.
“We will be picking people off the street if this law is not enforced,” says Joel Shufro, former executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health [NYCOSH].
Over 100 construction workers died on the job in New York State between 2009 and 2011. Hundreds more died nationwide. And the injuries and deaths have only continued since then.
It’s a sad reality that has convinced many that being a construction worker is actually more dangerous than being a police officer.
Still, critics of New York’s Scaffold contend that Labor Law 240 is making it harder for them to build here, and they have been actively trying to weaken the measure which maintains needed safety regulations, while also serving as a lifeline for those construction workers profoundly injured on the job.
Shufro, and other safety advocates are pushing back against these so-called efforts at reform, and dismiss the idea that Labor Law 240 must now be stripped down due to economic concerns.
“There’s no indication that this law has held back construction,” Shufro says.
According to the former NYCOSH chief, the direct costs of worksite injuries to employers represent just a minor portion of all the potential costs involved. Shufro argues that indirect costs in the form of things like down time and hiring new people, can be much more costly to employers – as much as seven times more costly.
“And none of these costs involve the pain and suffering of workers,” Shufro says.
Back in 1970, when the Occupational Safety & Health Administration [OSHA] was formed, there was a fight in Congress between labor unions who wanted to give workers the right to refuse dangerous work, and the owners who balked. Ultimately, a compromise was reached where employers accepted responsibility for what happens on the worksites they control.
“We think they should take this serious,” Shufro says. “What the employers are trying to do now, is shift responsibility back to those who don’t control the workplace from those that do.”
Even with existing protections in place, workers – many of them immigrants performing non-union jobs for substandard wages and non-existent benefits – are increasing under pressure from their bosses to complete construction jobs quicker.
“If a foreman at a non-union job site tells a worker you have to do this faster, and they know it's not safe, they may end up doing it anyway,” says Charlene Obernauer, NYCOSH’s current executive director.
Safety advocates insist that no worker should have to risk his life to hold a job – and that New York’s Scaffold Law must be preserved.
“Unfortunately, in this economy, with the level of unemployment and the amount of undocumented workers we have, employers are taking tremendous advantage of workers,” Shufro says. “But this law remains a huge incentive for safety.”