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James T. Snyder Law Blog

Construction season in New York State -- time to talk about legal protections for injured workers and laborers.

Photograph: Workings standing and climbing on scaffolding at a worksite.

Are you a construction or demolition worker who got injured on the job?  You need to read this.

New York State has a remarkable trio of laws intended to protect workers and laborers involved in the construction, erection, demolition, repairing, altering, painting, cleaning or pointing of buildings.

This trio of powerful protections is well-known to commercial property owners and general contractors in New York by their statutory names:  N.Y. Labor Law §§ 200, 240(1), and 241(6).  I want to discuss each protective statute, and related case law, over the next several weeks in this blog.  Let’s begin by talking about the first and probably the most renowned: Labor Law § 240(1), also known as New York’s “Scaffold Law.”  The Scaffold Law protects workers engaged in various kinds of construction, demolition and repairing from falling while working at heights, and from having construction materials and demolition debris falling on them from above their heads.

Why are these statutes “renowned” to owners and general contractors in New York?  Because they protect workers from being harmed during construction.  Imagine that.

The statutes require the commercial property owner and general contractor to take all the steps necessary to properly protect construction workers -- and that costs money.

So these laws are hated by the commercial owners, builders, construction and commercial real estate industry. 

Yes, hated.

Let’s examine the protections afforded construction or demolition workers by N.Y. Labor Law § 240(1).  That important provision reads as follows:

§  240.  Scaffolding and other devices for use of employees. 1.  All contractors and owners and  their  agents,  except  owners  of  one  and two-family  dwellings  who contract for but do not direct or control the work,  in  the  erection,  demolition,  repairing,  altering, painting, cleaning  or pointing of a building or structure shall furnish or erect, or cause to be furnished or erected for the performance of  such  labor, scaffolding,  hoists,  stays, ladders, slings, hangers, blocks, pulleys, braces, irons, ropes, and other devices which shall be  so  constructed, placed  and  operated  as  to  give  proper  protection  to  a person so employed.

We’ll start with the commercial owner’s duty under N.Y. Labor Law § 240(1).  Note that the Scaffold Law statute does not affect regular, neighborly owners of private one- or two-family homes they own for their personal residence.  So if Mom and Pop hire a roofing general contractor to put a roof on their private house they’ve lived in and owned for 34 years, this statute does not apply to them -- and that’s a good and understandable thing.

This statutory protection relates only to owners of commercial properties -- whether a single family home rented out by a landlord for profit, a retail store being built on the main street in town, or a 90-floor skyscraper under construction in Manhattan.

Ownership alone -- for the commercial premises or property owner -- is the key.  The issue of whether the commercial premises owner had contracted for the work or benefitted from it is legally irrelevant for the purposes of a Labor Law § 240(1) claim.  Tonolone v. Praxair, Inc., 22 A.D.3d 1031 (4th Dept. 2004).  As such, a commercial owner has an absolute, non-delegable duty under the Scaffolding Law to provide safety devices to workers on its premises while the workers perform construction or demolition for its benefit and/or at its behest.  Felker v. Corning, Inc., 90 N.Y.2d 219 (1997); Zimmer v. Chemung County Performing Arts, Inc., 65 N.Y.2d 513 (1985); Smith v. Picone Construction Corp., 63 A.D.3d 1716 (4th Dept. 2009).

Non-delegable means it cannot be contracted out, or consented away by the worker.  The owner must provide proper safety equipment to be certain the worker does not fall, or construction debris does not fall on him or her.

No wonder commercial premises owners in New York State hate this statute.  Imagine being responsible for the safety of workers on construction, demolition or repair projects you own.  Not a popular idea these days when the health and safety of working folks, from laborers to the skilled trades, is treated as an afterthought, is considered a “stupid” anti-business regulation, or a “waste of money” for the owner.

But what about the duty of the general contractor?  We’ll talk about that in the next blog installment regarding N.Y. Labor Law § 240(1).  Stay tuned.      


James Snyder