New York State’s Scaffold Law

New York State has a unique provision in its Labor Law that attaches absolute liability to property owners and contractors where an owner and contractor have failed to provide any safety devices for a worker engaged in a task that entails a significant risk because of an elevation differential.

Labor Law section 240(1) provides, in pertinent part:
All contractors and owners and their agents, who contract for but do not direct or control the work, in the erection, demolition, repairing, altering, painting, cleaning, or pointing of a building or structure shall furnish or erect, or cause to be furnished or erected for the performance of such labor, scaffolding, hoists, stays, ladders, slings, hangars, blocks, pulleys, braces, irons, ropes, and other devices which shall be so constructed, placed and operated as to give proper protection to a person so employed.

This statute imposes a non-delegable duty upon owners and contractors to provide a safe work environment, and the consequence for breach of that duty is the imposition of strict liability.

The Legislature’s intent in creating Labor Law section 240(1) is clear: to protect workers by placing the ultimate responsibility for safety practices at job sites where such responsibility actually belongs, on the owner and general contractor, instead of on workers, who are scarcely in a position to protect themselves from accident.

Specifically, the statute is intended to protect against risks due in some way to relative differentials in elevation. These risks are considered to be “special hazards” and are limited to such gravity-related accidents as falling. As the State’s highest Court held: Labor Law section 240(1) was designed to prevent those types of accidents in which the scaffold, hoist, stay, ladder or other protective device proved inadequate to shield the injured worker from harm directly flowing from the application of the force of gravity to an object or person.

The enumerated devices share common characteristics. All of the devices either allow an individual to work where he otherwise would not be able to, or permit a worker to lift objects in a manner he would not otherwise be able to. Further, all of the devices are customarily utilized in tasks that entail an inherent significant risk because of the relative elevation at which the task must be performed or at which materials or loads must be positioned or secured. Since protective devices, such as railings, are clearly needed when a worker is engaged in the performance of hazardous duties related to the effects of gravity in order to prevent the worker from falling from the work surface, the Legislature saw it necessary to give the worker the exceptional protection that Labor Law section 240(1) provides.

New York State is the only state that currently provides these extraordinary protections for workers. Insurance companies and business owners continually lobby to reform the Labor Law, arguing that section 240 is unfair. They contend that the law makes business insurance prohibitively expensive and drives up everyday costs for taxpayers.

New York’s courts have continually upheld the absolute liability standard, which means that property owners and contractors cannot defend their actions or inactions or hide behind their safety records in liability cases that fall under this broad statute.

As a former New York City trial attorney who has represented seriously injured workers who would not have been so seriously injured had these property owners and contractors provided the worker with the necessary protections, I find the arguments of insurance companies and business owners for Labor Law reform ridiculous. Owners and contractors must be made to provide their workers with the necessary safety equipment and devices, and if they fail to do so and a worker is injured as a result, these owners and contractors must be held accountable.

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