Owners and Contractors Take Aim at 128-Year-Old Scaffolding Law

In 1885 New York State legislators enacted a law intended to safeguard construction workers who were finding themselves facing increasing dangers while working at ever-greater heights. The law, which became known as the Scaffold Law, requires employers on building sites to ensure the safety of laborers working above the ground. The law states that contractors and property owners are responsible for ensuring that scaffolds, hoists, and other devices that enable aboveground building construction and repair “shall be constructed, placed and operated as to give proper protection to a person so employed.” When injuries result from a violation of those terms, the law says, contractors and owners are liable.

Recently, a lobby of contractors, owners, and insurers have made efforts to campaign against the law. They’ve started an advertising and lobbying blitz in Albany and New York City. They argue that the law is antiquated and prejudicial against contractors and owners, and essentially absolves employees of responsibility for their own accidents, leading to huge settlements. The payouts, they contend, have in turn led to skyrocketing insurance premiums that are hampering construction and the state’s economic growth.

They’d like the law to incorporate a standard of “comparative negligence.” This amendment would require a jury or arbiter to consider whether the liability of the defendants, and thus the amount of damages, should be reduced for cases in which the worker’s negligence or failure to follow safety procedures contributed to the accident.

A counter-lobby of unions, workers’ advocates, and trial lawyers are pushing back, arguing that the law is essential to ensuring the safety of workers in some of the world’s most dangerous jobs, particularly those employed by shoddy contracting firms that cut corners to save money. The law, they say, holds developers and contractors accountable for keeping job sites safe.