Crain’s photo shows crews take risks. Yet only employers are punished

To the Editor:

The expensive inequities and fundamental unfairness of the irrational absolute-liability standard in New York’s “scaffold law” are front and center in “Without a net” (Photo Finish, Sept. 26), about workers at height ignoring safety regulations. Even with the workers’ negligent behavior, the property owner and contractor would be held absolutely liable in a lawsuit for injuries sustained from a fall.

Therein lies the problem: Under the scaffold law, businesses and property owners are held absolutely liable for any gravity-related accident, even if they had nothing to do with it. This has a profoundly negative impact on every construction contractor in New York—and on every taxpayer and citizen, too. As the article notes, only a handful of insurance companies will even write general liability policies for construction work in this state with such an unreasonable standard—which exists only in New York, I might add. Further, because of this law, those policies carry exorbitant premiums that drive up the cost of everything from school construction to affordable housing to disaster relief. Everyone else is paying while trial lawyers are laughing all the way to the bank in one of the great sanctioned rackets of our time.

Opponents of reforming the scaffold law say it promotes safety, but the Crain’s photo shows that is not the case. In fact, a study conducted by Cornell University shows that the law is linked to an increase in injuries—at a rate of 677 per year. Sadly, contractors who invest in safety, run strong safety programs and enforce the rules are treated the same under this law as those bad actors who cut corners and put workers at risk. If someone can explain how that promotes safety, I’ll meet you for a debate any time.

Safe work conditions are fundamental and anyone creating a dangerous work environment should be held accountable. This is why the scaffold law must be reformed to a common-sense comparative-negligence standard to account for the negligent actions wherever they might be.

Mike Elmendorf
President and CEO
New York State Chapter, Associated General Contractors of America