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Ending the Scaffold Law would hurt, not help, minorities

By BARRIE SMITH President of 100 Black Construction Workers; Business Agent, Construction and General Building Laborers’ Local 79 | 1/31/2014, 11:43 a.m.

While I believe strongly that New York must take steps to help minority- and women-owned businesses, gutting critical worker safety laws like the Scaffold Law is a seriously flawed approach.

Unfortunately, some of the basic facts about this law and its implications are getting lost in the debate. While I have enormous respect for the Alliance for Minority and Women Construction Businesses, it is important to set the record straight when it comes to the Scaffold Law.

First, let’s be honest about how the Scaffold Law works. Contractors can only be held responsible for worker injuries if they failed to follow the law, which requires that they provide lifesaving equipment like sturdy scaffolds, ladders, ropes and harnesses. If they comply with the law, contractors simply cannot be held liable. The law is fair: If your construction site is unsafe, you are responsible for workers who suffer devastating injuries or even lose their lives because you did not follow the rules.

The Scaffold Law makes New York’s construction sites safer by placing responsibility for safety on those who control the worksite. That is why from 2000 to 2010, New York had the country’s fifth lowest construction injury rate.

Still, construction work is a very dangerous line of work, especially for minority workers. A 2013 study by the Center for Popular Democracy concluded that Latinos and immigrants are disproportionately injured or killed in construction accidents: 74 percent of the victims of fatal falls in New York City and 60 percent of the victims statewide between 2003 and 2011 were Latino and/or immigrant workers.

Another dangerous myth about the Scaffold Law is that it is somehow costing our communities access to pre-kindergarten education. That is simply absurd. The Scaffold Law has not stopped school construction in New York City, and as Mayor Bill de Blasio has made clear, what New York City needs is funding to operate pre-K centers. A lack of school construction is not what is holding back pre-K expansion, and to claim as much is deeply irresponsible and misleading.

Finally, those who want to weaken our worker safety laws often claim New York’s Scaffold Law is somehow unique. It isn’t. Many other states have construction liability laws that protect workers who labor at deadly elevations. In Ohio, there are even criminal penalties for contractors who violate the construction safety laws.

Minority- and women-owned businesses are a very important part of New York’s construction industry, and they need and deserve support from our leaders in Albany. But sacrificing the safety of workers, especially minority workers, by gutting the Scaffold Law should not be on the agenda.