Tragic events often are the prime movers for changes in the law. Nothing could be more dramatic in the evolution of our safety laws enacted to protect workers, than what occurred in 1911. Almost one hundred years ago, in a sweat shop in lower Manhattan, a fire broke out in a factory owned by the Triangle Waiste Company. The fire spread within minutes, there being no sprinklers or extinguishers. As sewing machine operators (mostly immigrant women), pressers, cutters, and others, attempted to escape the inferno, they rushed toward the only exit door which opened in, and not out, thus causing a pile-up of workers, who in panic, pushed and tried to climb over each other in their attempt to reach the exit door which was shut and blocked by those in a frenzy trying to get out. When the flames were finally extinguished by firefighters who fought valiantly to reach the trapped workers, they came upon the tragic toll – 146 dead, unable to escape through the only door jammed with bodies.
The Triangle disaster brought shock waves throughout the state and nation, creating a huge public outcry demanding there be a safe workplace for all workers. Ultimately, and responding to the anger of the public, the New York State Legislature began to enact laws designed to protect the safety of all workers (sprinklers, doors opening out instead of in, designated areas of escape, etc.) in factories, and subsequently on construction sites. This was an evolutionary process where new statutes in the construction field not only codified the common law regarding safety at the worksite, but added specific measures to be taken by owners and general contractors, thus making them strictly liable to an injured worker if their failure caused the injury.
With that as a backdrop, we have the enactment of New York State Labor Law Sections 200, 240(1), 240(6), and other sections that address worker safety.
Briefly, Section 200 is a codification of the common law which states generally that every owner or general contractor must provide a reasonably safe workplace. In essence, Section 200 is rooted in general negligence with all of the defenses of comparative negligence plus all other defenses available to the defendant in a tort action.
Section 240(1) however, commonly described as the “scaffolding” section of the Labor Law, imposes a mandatory duty upon the owner or general contractor to maintain a number of safety devices at the worksite (scaffolding, hoists, stays, ladders, slings, etc.) failing which, the owner and general contractor will be held strictly liable to a worker injured as a result of the absence of such devices. “Strictly liable” means there is no defense based upon comparative negligence of the worker should it exist, with the sole exception described as “the recalcitrant worker defense” should the injured worker have refused to use safety equipment provided to him.
Section 240(6) addresses violations of the industrial code.
With hundreds of construction sites and thousands of workers on any given day in New York State, there are a steady number who are injured, many of whom suffer permanent injuries, some, even death.
In an interesting case in which Finz & Finz, P.C., represented the widow of a worker on the job in the construction of a water tunnel 600 feet below the surface, a large winch that was not sufficiently secured, fell 600 feet down into the tunnel, killing the worker below. In that tragic case in which the engineers discovered the cause of the accident, the violation of the Labor Law became the basis of a significant settlement just prior to trial. More recently, the Labor Law issue was once again raised in Rivera v. Fairway Equities, LLC, published in the New York Law Journal on September 18, 2012 and decided by Justice Schmidt in the Supreme Court, Kings County. The Rivera case involved a worker on a construction job who was seriously injured when he was directed to stand on a forklift in order to hold a hamper that would catch sand being unloaded into it. In the process, the weight of the sand caused the forklift to tilt, throwing the worker to the ground and injuring him.
The issue in the Rivera case was whether Section 240(1) of the New York Labor Law was applicable. In its decision, the court concluded that the plaintiff worker was indeed protected under that section in that there were no safety devices used to protect him as set forth in Section 240(1), and thus granted his motion for summary judgment.
What the Rivera case tells us is that despite laws enacted to protect construction workers, some owners and general contractors continue to violate basic rules of safety thus exposing their workers to a risk of serious injury. The key to success in these tragic cases lies in pursuing the most intensive investigation by safety engineers, construction experts, and others, all joined together with the experience and expertise of a seasoned personal injury attorney in order to employ the fullest coverage and application of the Labor Law, thus ensuring that the injured worker receives the fullest protection under the law