Confused About NY’s Scaffold Law? We’re Here to Help.

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Joe Mabel

The legislative session in Albany comes to an end in the next few weeks, but one battle that won’t end anytime soon is the fight over whether to reform New York’s Scaffold Safety Law. That debate has been playing out for a while, and below is a quick guide to the two sides.

If you work atop scaffolding for a living, chances are you want the Scaffold Safety Law to stay legally strong. In the video below, we interviewed the executive director for the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, one of several labor-backed groups fighting to prevent changes that the construction and insurance industries are lobbying for. Charlene Obernauer says that the scaffold law is imperative to defend because it holds employers responsible for any job-safety violations.

“What the law really does is make sure that construction workers are protected on the job and that if there is an injury or fatality that the construction worker can then hold the company that put that person at risk accountable. Unfortunately, when we did an analysis of construction fatalities and looked at [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] inspections, OSHA finds two-thirds of the time in construction there is a violation,” said Obernauer. “That means that companies see OSHA violations as just the cost of doing business. Because the maximum OHSA fine is $70,000 for a willful violation, the scaffold law allows individuals to sue the employer for any violations, [and that is] something that needs to be in place because the other fines are just not significant enough [to be an incentive] for employers to follow the law.”

But according to the websit, www.scaffoldlaw.org and the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York, the Scaffold Safety Law burdens all New Yorkers because the law generates an astounding number of expensive lawsuits that contribute to a variety of negative impacts—higher construction costs, fewer workers being hired (or even fired) and consumers paying higher prices for goods and services.

In the other accompanying video, Louis Coletti, president and CEO of the Building Trades Employers’ Association, which represents construction contractors employing unionized building tradesmen and tradeswomen, says that his association is lobbying for reforms to the law because the law increases the cost of doing business exorbitantly. In fact, he said that one contractor recently renewed his general reliability insurance for doing business in both New York and New Jersey and that New York’s insurance renewal was 300 percent higher than in New Jersey.

Coletti also noted that the Scaffold Safety Law prevents employers from making their case in court.

“All we want is the ability to go to court like in every other judicial proceeding and present whatever evidence may be generic to that case and let the jury decide. There isn’t any judicial proceeding in this country where both parties don’t have the opportunity to present their side of the case. And we’re perfectly ready to accept whatever a jury decides,” said Coletti.

When we asked Coletti about the probability that a savvy lawyer, should the law be reformed, could convince a jury that a worker was responsible for his injury when in fact he wasn’t, Coletti said that’s our judicial system.

“That’s the judicial system. In a criminal and civil trial each attorney has the burden to prove their case. And then an independent, third party, which is a jury, makes that determination,” Coletti said.

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