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What Are ‘Gravity-Related Risks’ at Construction Sites?

If you or someone you care about has been injured in a construction site accident involving a “gravity-related risk” in Albany, Syracuse or elsewhere in New York State, you may be entitled to a financial recovery for your injuries.

New York State Labor Law § 240 (1) – commonly known as the “Scaffold Law” – protects workers who have been hired “in furtherance of” the erection, demolition, repair, alteration, painting, cleaning or pointing of a building or any structure and who, as a result, are exposed to what are known as gravity-related risks.

The Scaffold Law imposes absolute liability upon owners, contractors or their agents for violations of its provisions, which were designed to prevent injuries among workers from falling objects and from falling from heights while working on construction sites.

Absolute liability simply means that a worker’s contributory negligence cannot be considered when determining whether the employer, contractor or agent is liable under the law. This is because workers are not in a position to protect themselves from these risks. Employers, contractors and agents, however, are in such a position.

Working in construction activities that involve heights or objects which could cause injury if they fall upon a worker is extremely dangerous. This is why the law gives workers the right to file an action to recover financial compensation for injuries resulting from gravity-related risks.

Homeowners of single- or two-family residences are exempt from the law if they contract for but are not directing or controlling the work on their homes. Yet, the contractors or their agents hired to do work on such homes could still be liable under the law.

It is important for construction workers who are involved in gravity-related risk activities to know what those risks are and what is covered under the law. The following is a list of common gravity-related risks:

Falls from Scaffolding

As the law is commonly known as the Scaffold Law, obviously, falling from scaffolding or being injured while working on scaffolding can give rise to liability for a worker’s injuries.

The law was actually enacted in 1885 to respond to accidents and protect workers who were then constructing skyscrapers in New York City. At the time, the scaffolding and safety measures employed to hoist workers up the side of the buildings were not adequate and were failing, causing many workers to fall to their deaths.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), one study found that 72 percent of workers who were injured in scaffold accidents cited “the planking or support giving way, or to the employee slipping or being struck by a falling object.”

Falling Objects/Debris

A falling platform hoist that strikes a worker is an example of a falling object injury that would likely be covered by the Scaffold Law. In order to fall within the protections of the law, an injured plaintiff would need to show that the object fell due to inadequate hoisting or the lack of proper safety devices.

Falling debris such as wood, glass, brick or other construction material being removed or installed due to inadequate safety measures or procedures would also likely be covered.

OSHA reports that “struck by falling objects” accounted for 10.1 percent of the total construction accident-related deaths during the most recent year for which statistics are available.

Falls from Heights

Falling from a roof or a scaffold due to inadequate safety measures are examples of falls from heights which could be covered under the law as well. An employer or contractor must provide adequate braces, hoists, stays, pulleys, slings, safety rails, hangers, blocks, ladders, irons or ropes to allow workers to safely work on an elevated area. If a worker fell due to the lack of such safety measures, defective safety equipment or the failure of such equipment, the employer or contractor could be liable under the law.

Falls from Ladders

Slipping from a ladder and falling is an example of a fall from a ladder which could be covered under the law. Providing a defective ladder to workers who are working on a construction site and performing the type of work that falls under the law would create absolute liability on the part of the employer or contractor.

Falls from Roofs and Falls from Other Elevated Places

Falls from constructed platforms elevated above the ground are examples of falls from other elevated places. Employers and contractors must use proper safety measures when erecting these platforms, including erecting a railing to prevent workers’ falls. This rule also applies to roof workers who are replacing roofing materials or performing other construction tasks that require them to be on the roof.

Do Construction Companies Learn from Mistakes?

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, the saying goes. Unfortunately, this appears to be the case with construction accidents involving cranes in New York City.

A dismaying report by the New York Daily News states that the NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) ignored more than one-third of the 65 recommendations for changes that a consultant suggested after two construction crane collapses in Manhattan in 2008 killed a total of nine people.

The city hired CTL Engineers & Construction Technology Consultants to prepare a safety review after a 300-foot crane collapsed on East 51st Street in March of that year, killing seven people, and a second crane collapse occurred in May on East 91st Street, killing two construction workers. Construction accidents had soared by nearly 50 percent over two years, according to city data.

However, only eight of the consultant’s recommendations have been fully implemented, while 17 have been partially implemented, 18 are in progress and 22 have not been implemented at all, according to CBS New York, which obtained a copy of the audit report.

What Crane Safety Steps Have Not Been Taken?

According to that audit, the city has failed to act on safety recommendations that include requiring:

  • A technical adviser on a construction site during the assembly, climbing and dismantling of a tower crane
  • Inspections of custom-built hoisting systems that hold more than a ton
  • An engineer to determine that the building can support the loads imposed by the hoist
  • All bolted connections to be checked regularly
  • Crane maintenance personnel to have basic knowledge about bolt torque-ing
  • Site safety personnel to report to the owner of a project instead of a contractor or the construction manager (to avoid conflicts of interest)
  • A “two strikes and you’re out” provision to be levied against a contractor who fails to enforce safety regulations and procedures (a project would be shut down for a prescribed number of days).

The city paid the consultants $3.9 million for the study and another $1.9 million to help implement the recommendations. The consultant’s report was delivered in June 2009.

New York Law Holds Negligent Contractors Accountable

The audit report states, in part, that the “failed attempt thus far to address what have been identified as high-risk deficiencies in the DOB’s regulations and oversight may continue to expose the public and construction site workers to accidents and injuries.”

This audit report should raise concern among construction companies doing business in New York City and elsewhere in the state. It is an instance in which crane companies have not been required to take at least some of the steps they could take in order to ensure safe operations.

This continued exposure of the public and construction site workers to accidents and injuries, in the auditor’s words, is a continued exposure of construction companies to personal injury lawsuits due to crane collapses or other accidents.

New York law allows injured construction workers and their families and the public to hold negligent construction site owners and contractors such as crane companies liable for injuries sustained in a crane collapse or other construction site accident.

The city itself could arguably be a party in such a lawsuit based on the DOB’s failure to implement recommendations that would “significantly reduce the risk of future catastrophic failures in construction in the city.”

Hurt from a Gravity-Related Risk? Contact an Experienced Lawyer

At Powers & Santola, LLP, we have extensive experience and knowledge in representing construction workers who have been injured due to violations of the Scaffold Law as well as the families of those who have lost loved ones in construction accidents.

Construction accident attorney Daniel R. Santola is a leader in this area of the law. He is the author of the book, Litigating Construction Accident Cases in New York, and he has lectured other lawyers and judges on this topic for more than 25 years.

You can read about one of our recent cases where the court found in favor of our client, a widow of a worker who fell off the New York State Capitol building roof due to a lack of safety measures that would have prevented the fall.

To learn more, please contact us to schedule a free consultation.

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