Tear down N.Y.’s ‘Scaffold Law’ to rebuild infrastructure, group says. Not so fast, a law clinic replies.

Washington Post
Thursday, October 26, 2017

A battle to repeal an obscure New York law protecting construction workers appears to be gaining momentum, with backers saying the 19th-century measure is typical of the reasons it’s so difficult and costly to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.

But a legal institute at New York Law School says that’s bunk.…

But Joanne Doroshow, executive director of the Center for Justice & Democracy at New York Law School, said this week that the repeal movement has been coasting on misinformation, and that the effort has more to do with builders’ profits than with overhauling the nation’s infrastructure.

“What this law is really about is ensuring the safety of work sites,” Doroshow said. “It’s really important that owners and contractors have exclusive responsibility for ensuring the safety of work sites.”

Other groups warning against repeal of the Scaffold Law include the Center for Public Democracy, which wrote its own report questioning the conclusions of a similar study co-written by Geddes for the Rockefeller Institute.

Doroshow’s clinic, citing U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, notes that construction leads all sectors in the number of workplace deaths (although the rate is lower than for agriculture and forestry and other sectors). She said the law also limits a builder’s liability in some ways: An injured worker must show that the employer violated necessary safety standards. The center also says that if the accident was caused solely by the worker’s negligence — such as intoxication — a claim can be defeated.

Repealing the Scaffold Law would open the way to blaming injured workers for their accidents, Doroshow said. She also said Workers’ Compensation offers inadequate protections these days. Years of lobbying by industry groups have led to tightened eligibility and skimpier benefits, a trend documented by the U.S. Labor Department.

Although it’s true that New York may be the only holdout on the Scaffold Law, that may speak more to the rollbacks in Illinois and elsewhere that builders and insurance companies have lobbied for, Doroshow said. She said the New York law not only protects workers on a job site but, by putting a heavy onus on builders to operate safely, helps keep everyone safe, including pedestrians and others near construction sites in New York City.

“I’m very thankful that this law exists because I think it protects everybody who lives here,” she said.

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