Scaffold accidents happen to construction workers employed on and around the scaffolding on construction sites. They are workplace injuries but are not subject only to workers’ compensation rules in some states like New York. Recovering financially for scaffolding injuries can be complex, and anyone with injuries should seek legal advice and representation.
Unlike most states, New York does not treat scaffolding accidents like ordinary run-of-the-mill workers’ compensation claims. Instead, New York handles these accidents under the Scaffolding Law.
The Scaffolding Law holds contractors and property owners strictly liable for any workplace injury in any worksite accident involving a fall or, in effect, gravity. New York is the only state to impose this liability standard on gravity-related worksite accidents.
What Does New York Labor Law § 240, the Scaffolding Law, Require?
The Scaffolding Law requires that scaffolding and its accessories be “so constructed, placed, and operated to give proper protection to a person employed.” New York’s courts have broadly interpreted these provisions as requirements in various situations.
For any accident that does fall under this law, the court will hold the primary contractor, project owner, or property owner strictly liable for any injuries on the worksite.
The statute is a little confusing to read but what it essentially says is:
- All construction workers are entitled to protection from falls and falling hazards
- Construction has a broad definition, including:
- Erecting equipment
- All contractors, owners, and their agents are liable—basically anyone involved
- Failure to prevent a fall or falling hazard is a breach of the duty of care, meaning no proof of negligence is required.
In other words, a worker doesn’t have to prove anyone was negligent, just that the worker fell.
How the Scaffolding Law Affects an Injury Claim?
New York’s Scaffolding Law imposes strict liability on those who put together a construction project or own the property where it happens. This can make suing these parties difficult.
In an ordinary negligence case, the worker has to prove duty, a breach of duty, and foreseeability of the incident that caused the injury. Moreover, whoever is the primarily liable party will have to cover 100 percent of the damages, meaning that no wrangling about who is responsible and to what extent will be necessary.
Can a Worker Still File for Workers Compensation?
Yes. Worker’s compensation is an entirely different matter, and you may still file for it. However, under the Scaffolding Law, you may also recover broader damages than under workers’ comp. For example, a worker’s comp claim will not usually cover pain and suffering damages, but you can recover both present and future pain and suffering under the Scaffolding Law.
Workers’ compensation also does not always pay the full extent of a worker’s damages, including medical treatment and lost wages. A third-party claim against a non-employer under the Scaffolding Law can give you access to more insurance resources through the third party and make it more likely to make a complete financial recovery.
What Does Strict Liability Mean?
Technically, the Scaffolding Law is not a strict liability statute. Anyone suing has to prove there was a fall and some violation of the Scaffolding Law. If any evidence shows that the scaffolding provided did violate the law, additional liability may accrue.
There is no defense based on an allegation that the worker may have been partially liable. However, if the worker was “recalcitrant”—if they solely caused the accident by expressly ignoring safety instructions or refusing to use safety devices— or were the sole proximate cause of the accident, the case may favor the owner or contractor.
In other words, a construction worker cannot refuse to wear a hard hat and then complain about a head injury.
What Are Common Scaffolding Hazards?
Falls subject to § 240 often happen when the scaffolding is dangerous, including
- Missing rails or toe boards
- Uneven footings
- Missing planks
- Falling objects from a scaffold
- Lack of inspections
- Improper access to the platform
- Failing to secure a platform properly
- Missing platform bases or braces
- Improper maintenance
- Overloaded scaffolding
- Debris on scaffolding
- Building scaffolding too close to electrical lines
- Poor worker training
- Inadequate access to safety equipment
- Failure to protect workers from falling objects
- Owners/Operators failing to comply with scaffolding rules
What Are Common Types of Scaffolding in New York?
New York construction sites use various types of scaffolding.
The more common ones are:
Steel scaffolds are more durable than wood but companies must erect them and comply with the manufacturer’s instructions. The most common error in using steel scaffolding is omitting toe boards or guard rails, making falls far more likely.
These are not vehicles for riding, and the caster brakes or wheel locks should be applied when the scaffold isn’t supposed to be moving.
These should use good quality wood and be well-constructed. Their designs should hold the loads that workers will likely put on them. Load calculations should factor in workers, building materials, and the structure’s weight. Adequate footings, such as planks, should be placed under every upright, especially if they rest on loose material (or soil). Cross-bracing to provide stability for the scaffold must be in place.
Pole scaffolds are either for light trades or heavy trades. The first group covers carpenters, painters, and other professions that do not require heavy material loads on the scaffold platform. In contrast, heavy trades include bricklayers, stonemasons, concrete workers, and steelworkers.
Single pole scaffolds only have one side supported by uprights, with the building under construction holding up one end of each ledger. These pole scaffolds should be cross-braced along the face of the building and at right angles to the building face at every third or fourth upright.
What Are Common Accidents Subject to § 240?
Various types of incidents commonly occur on and around scaffolding in New York work sites.
Some of these common accidents include:
- Falling off the scaffolding – Falling from scaffolding usually results in severe injuries, depending on the height from which the worker falls. These falls can lead to catastrophic injuries and increase the likelihood of a fatality.
- Objects falling off the scaffolding – Workers on scaffolding carry tools, supplies, and other objects while working on a platform. Inadequately secured loads can fall onto workers below. Objects striking a worker in the head can lead to skull fractures and traumatic brain injury.
- Slip and fall accidents – Slip and fall accidents are common because scaffolding is almost always outside and, therefore, subject to the vagaries of the weather. With ice, snow, and rain, the wooden or metal platforms of the scaffolding become dangerously slippery. Workers can slip and fall on the platform or off the platform, resulting in injury.
- Power installation incidents – Incorrectly installed scaffolding near powerlines can expose workers to electrocution and burn hazards.
- Scaffolding Collapses – If not well installed, a scaffold can collapse, leaving workers injured on and under the scaffold. Depending on the heights of the scaffolds and the number of injured, this collapse can cause catastrophic damage.
What Are Common Injuries from a Scaffolding Fall?
Most of the injuries on scaffolding result from falls or falling objects, although electrocution injuries also occur on scaffolds built improperly around power lines.
Some of these common injuries are:
- Crush and Compression Injuries – Crushing injuries from a scaffold fall can cause broken bones, severe contusions, and even head injuries like skull fractures. Breaks can be so severe as to require surgeries or even amputations.
- Traumatic Brain Injuries – Because of the likelihood of hitting your head in a fall or being hit on the head by a falling object, traumatic brain injuries are not uncommon on scaffold sites. Even seemingly mild brain trauma can result in potentially fatal complications. Remember, your doctor’s mild TBI designation relates only to the initial presentation of symptoms and not to your overall prognosis. TBIs that medical professionals deem mild can still be severe injuries resulting in severe and lasting effects and complications. If you are diagnosed with any TBI, you should remain on watch for any symptoms of complications or lingering effects. These injuries can cause loss of sight or hearing, difficulty with speech, and even loss of the ability to function daily.
- Internal Injuries and Bleeding – Falls can cause severe damage to your internal organs and result in internal bleeding. Both of these can be difficult to detect initially, and if not treated promptly, internal bleeding can even be fatal. Bleeding inside the head is particularly dangerous, especially if accompanied by swelling of the brain.
- Neck and Back Injuries – Neck and back injuries can damage the spinal cord, so it’s best to wait for medical personnel before moving the injured party (assuming it’s not more dangerous to leave the victim where they are). Spinal damage can lead to chronic pain, loss of mobility, and even temporary or permanent paralysis. The extent of such paralysis depends on the location of the injury on the spine.
- Emotional and Psychological Trauma – Workers badly injured in a scaffolding accident may also suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome and other emotional and psychological disorders. These are debilitating, but they can be severe enough to prevent the worker from returning to construction work.
Ways to Avoid an Accident
Those who work at construction sites should protect themselves on the worksite. These sites are dangerous, and something as simple as a dropped tool can result in a severe injury.
Follow these simple procedures:
- Always wear a hardhat in any construction site area, including scaffolding.
- Be sure to set up scaffolds as designed, go up, do not take shortcuts, and inspect each scaffold.
- If scaffolds are slippery for some reason, do not use them until the platform is properly cleaned and any debris or foreign substances removed.
- Don’t leave loose objects, such as tools, ladders, or boxes, on scaffolds because these can tip or fall and create a dangerous situation.
- Use mounted ladders and make sure to follow all safety instructions.
- Don’t take shortcuts on your scaffold or when climbing on a scaffold; stick to designated means of access.
- Stay aware of your surroundings when working on or near a scaffold.
- Report any potential safety violations or concerns—it’s better to be safe than sorry.
It is important to remember that even though no one has to prove negligence in a Scaffolding Law case, the cause of most incidents is usually someone’s carelessness. Follow these steps to keep yourself and others safe from potential scaffolding accidents and injuries.
How Can a New York Construction Accident Attorney Help?
Scaffolding law in New York is very different from workers’ compensation and typical personal injury cases. It does not have the damages limitations of workers’ compensation and does not require proof of negligence like personal injury cases do.
Section 240 has detailed requirements, and you must meet them exactly to recover damages. First, you must have been working on a structure that meets the legal definition of a building. The definition is broad and includes things like bridges, subway tunnels, and garages, but you should be aware of it, nonetheless. Also, owners of one- and two-family buildings are generally excluded from liability if they don’t control the work. Owners of large residential (and other) structures are automatically liable.
As noted above, the statute only covers specific types of construction work and does not cover anything related to maintenance, manufacturing, or decorative work. Further, passersby to a worksite, like pedestrians and motor vehicles, have no protections under this specific law. Discuss your injuries with a construction accident attorney near you as soon as possible.