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A review of New York's "Scaffold Law"

Construction workers in New York are protected by a special section New York's labor law, which builders and construction professionals don't enjoy in many other states around the U.S. Under Labor Law § 240 (popularly referred to as the Scaffold Law), property owners and their contracted agents (general contractors) are responsible for erecting adequate safety devices to protect workers from injuries or death from falls. Since its passage in 1885, the law has helped countless construction workers sue for additional damages over and above workers' compensation they might also be entitled to.

This series of blog posts reviews the history and intent of New York Labor Law § 240, the specific provisions that protect construction workers and legal issues that are putting pressure on the law.

First, a review of the 1885 law

The law was passed by the New York Assembly in 1885, when city skylines began moving upward in large cities throughout New York. As construction workers faced greater risk of serious injuries and deaths from falls, their families had no place to turn to for compensation. To understand the law's foundations, we must first remember the employment conditions of the times. Injured workers had little recourse to sue for damages under the old common law, which was based on the master's responsibility to the servant. Many construction workers were independent contractors. Therefore, the commercial property owner or general contractor served directly as their "master."

But the original § 240 of 1885 had loopholes, which property owners have exploited often over subsequent years. To avoid liability, for example, they often argued that the accident was an act of negligence on the part of a co-worker on site. To add clarity, the law was strengthened and expanded in 1897 to force courts into creating "the presumption of liability" on the part of the property owner.

After the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, the State Assembly ushered in workers' compensation laws, but New York Labor Law § 240 has remained on the books, giving injured construction workers and their families additional recourse for just compensation. Over the years, thousands of injured workers and their families have benefited.

Next post: challenges to the law

When originally enacted, lawmakers had in mind the safety of workers on scaffolds, rooftops and other elevated workspaces. However, over the years, the law has been interpreted to mean any injury resulting from a slip, trip, or fall from a raised elevation on a worksite, including walls and roofs.   

In recent years, the scope of the law has come under tough legal and insurance challenges, which we will discuss in our next post.

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