Building owners and developers are gearing up for a major push in Albany to reform New York state's infamous scaffolding law. The law, which dates back to the late 1800s, was once a model of progressive safety standards on construction sites across the nation. More recently, however it has become a huge insurance headache for contractors who blame it for driving insurance rates to such levels that they are actually forcing up construction costs—and in some cases even stalling projects, according to the industry.
"I don't think there's a more important issue facing the development community right now," said Christopher Jaskiewicz, chief operating officer of the Gotham Organization, the fourth-generation real estate development firm.
Mr. Jaskiewicz was an organizer of a panel Tuesday morning before the Greater New York Construction User Council to discuss the issue. Speakers at the event held at Scandinavia House on Park Avenue argued that New York has put itself at an economic disadvantage as the only state with a scaffolding law, known as Section 240 of the state's labor law code. Whereas every other state puts an equal burden on the worker to ensure they are protecting themselves at work, New York places an absolute liability on the developer and contractors.
One example given was that if a worker falls or is injured by faulty scaffolding, the property managers are held liable regardless of unsafe behavior by the worker. Insurers typically make seven-figure settlements rather than risk an even bigger loss in court, but this has driven up the price of doing business. With New York City already the most expensive construction market in the country, developers and contractors are looking for any opportunity to reduce costs.
"We're not saying that workers shouldn't be protected, of course they should be, that's our top priority," said Louis Colletti, president of the Building Trades Employers Association, a contractor group. "We're just saying we want the ability to present evidence in a liability case that can exonerate us if the worker is at fault. Right now, we don't have that."
The labor unions were not represented at the panel, nor were trial attorneys. Both groups are the law's biggest backers. They have argued that if the contractors are doing their job, and the scaffolds and equipment is properly secured, they are free from fear of liability.