June 12, 2013
By Edward J. Walsh, President New York State Ironworkers District Council
In 2011, there were 721 fatal construction injuries in the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Between 2009 and 2011, there were 101 deaths in New York state alone. But despite the dangers inherent at construction sites, a small number of unscrupulous developers and contractors are trying to undermine the law that ensures safe equipment and practices for construction.
If they succeed, dangerous work will become more deadly.
New York's construction safety statute, commonly referred to as the Scaffold Law, requires employers follow common sense guidelines — adequate safety training and devices to prevent workers from falling from heights and to prevent construction material from falling on workers below. If owners and general contractors comply with the law, safety is ensured. Those who don't comply with the law are held responsible if and when an accident occurs.
Even so, developers and contractors want to change the law to shift more responsibility for on-the-job safety to the workers who are at the mercy of their equipment. Along with the big insurance companies, they insist that the Scaffold Law's protections should be eliminated and safety watered down during hard economic times. But their arguments misstate the facts.
They claim that OSHA already protects construction workers, and therefore the Scaffold Law is redundant. But OSHA itself acknowledges that it can inspect a handful of construction sites per day in New York. When inspectors do come around, OSHA records show that one in three construction sites in New York have serious violations of safety standards. But even when OSHA inspectors issue fines, study after study shows that they are so small that there is little incentive for employers to protect workers and follow the law.
Opponents of the Scaffold Law like to point to Illinois, where construction jobs increased by 25 percent after the state repealed its Scaffold Law. What they leave out is that construction employment in New York increased even more, by 29.6 percent, in the same period, a clear sign that the repeal of the law had nothing to do with growing jobs.
Opponents also say that the Scaffold Law is an automatic windfall for anyone hurt on a construction job. That's not just offensive — it's plain wrong. A worker who refuses to use equipment properly can't collect damages under the law. Moreover, the worker has to prove that someone else violated the law, for example by not providing a safety harness or ladder. But the notion that severely injured workers — many of whom can never work, or even walk again — receiving fair compensation constitutes a "windfall" is repugnant. If contractors are worried about the costs, they should make sure the workers on their construction sites are given the safety equipment and training the law already requires.
Despite a tragic toll, New York State's safety record at construction sites is better than most. This is in large part because of our sound safety regulations, including the Scaffold Law. Watering down the laws that protect working men and women will not boost our economy, but it could put hundreds of lives at risk.