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Coalition launched to protect construction workers and defend scaffold law

Stephon Johnson | 4/17/2014, 4:07 p.m.

A diverse collection of workers, organizations and advocates have formed a new coalition designed to defend New York’s Scaffold Safety Law and push for increased enforcement of New York’s construction safety standards.

“Tens of thousands of hard-working men and women, many of them immigrants, risk their lives building and repairing our city,” said SEIU 32BJ President Hector Figueroa. “Cleaning windows or working on a scaffold is dangerous. Why would our elected officials want to make it even more dangerous by removing key protections like the Scaffold Safety Law?”

Under the Scaffold Safety Law, property owners and the general contractors who control worksites are responsible for providing protections for their workers. Owners and contractors are not held liable for such accidents unless their failure to provide proper safety equipment caused a worker’s injury.

Garay LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, defended the law in a statement.

“Construction in New York City can be dangerous work, particularly when done at heights, without owners and contractors providing adequate safety protections,” said LaBarbera. “We believe the Scaffold Safety Law is an important contributor to having these protections in place and to holding those who control projects accountable for accidents and injuries that occur when they fail to provide such protections. We do agree that a problem exists in the general liability insurance market for construction projects. Too few insurers are writing policies, the policies they are writing offer less coverage and, on top of that, premiums are increasing in an industry where all indications are that safety is improving.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, falls from an elevation account for one-third of construction fatalities. Too many contractors, especially in the “underground” construction industry, still take safety shortcuts—usually smaller contractors whose job sites often lack required guardrails, safety harnesses and properly anchored scaffolds. Many rely heavily on minority and immigrant workers, who are often disproportionately injured or killed in construction falls.

The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health reported that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) fines are not good enough deterrents for OSHA construction sites to meet safety standards. According to the coalition, studies have shown that at approximately one in three OSHA construction sites in New York, inspectors found serious violations of safety standards. In 80 percent of the accidents where a worker fell and was killed, employers had violated those standards.

“The common sense provisions of the Scaffold Safety Law help to protect the workers who perform some of our city’s most dangerous jobs,” said Vincent Alvarez, president of the New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO. “This law is a win for workers and a win for the responsible contractors who believe in providing the tools necessary to keep workers safe on the job. As we move forward in supporting the workers around the city who are standing up for their rights, it is imperative that the labor movement and good employers continue to support measures to help ensure the safety of all of New York City’s working men and women.”