NY’s scaffold law protects workers in growing city

The Cortlandt Street Subway entrance seen across Church Street at Ground Zero, Lower Manhattan.
The Cortlandt Street Subway entrance seen across Church Street at Ground Zero, Lower Manhattan. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Ethan Miller

Tram Thuy “Tina” Nguyen was killed in March when the wind knocked a sheet of plywood loose from a construction site as the 37-year-old walked on West 12th Street.

Earlier this month, a 22-year-old man was buried alive and killed by falling debris while working on a Meatpacking District building. Two weeks ago, four construction workers were hospitalized when a banister collapsed at an office tower project near Grand Central.

NYC’s building boom is not slowing down, and injuries and deaths from construction work are rising. In 2015, at least eight people have died from construction-related accidents, compared with eight in all of 2014. It’s only May.

Construction is among the most dangerous jobs. There were more than 100 construction deaths in the state from 2009 to 2011, according to federal data. Nonunion and immigrant workers are most at risk. For example, 74% of construction workers killed by falls from 2003 to 2011 were Latino and/or immigrants, greater than their share of the construction workforce.

Meanwhile, OSHA, the federal agency that is supposed to keep construction sites safe, is understaffed and outgunned. By OSHA’s estimate, it can inspect one construction site in the region a day. OSHA typically shows up only after a serious accident, and issues fines that amount to a slap on the wrist.

But instead of talking about better safety enforcement, business groups want to weaken laws, like New York’s Scaffold Safety Law. That law requires those in charge of construction sites to provide safety structures, equipment and training. When safety rules are broken, contractors and owners can be held responsible in court — creating an incentive for safety.

Opponents argue that the law places too much of the burden on contractors, rather than workers. But the law rightly places responsibility for safety on those who control a job site and who are in position to make sure safety rules are followed. If contractors follow the rules, they can’t be sued under the law.

As condos and the mayor’s new affordable housing continue to rise, we can expect cranes and scaffolds for years. That is great news for our economy. But the workers building NYC, and those of us merely walking underneath, deserve strong laws to keep us safe.

Charlene Obernauer is the executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a membership-based group.

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