Labor Law Lacks Personal Accountability

WITH CONTRACTING companies at the top of the list of businesses with drug and alcohol problems, New York states Labor Law 240 strikes us as a particularly misguided piece of legislation. Not only does the law place absolute liability on the contractor in jobsite incidents involving scaffolding and ladders, but it also prevents contractors from defending themselves in court. Under this law, contractors

WITH CONTRACTING companies at the top of the list of businesses with drug and alcohol problems, New York state’s Labor Law 240 strikes us as a particularly misguided piece of legislation.

Not only does the law place absolute liability on the contractor in jobsite incidents involving scaffolding and ladders, but it also prevents contractors from defending themselves in court. Under this law, contractors have no right to present evidence to a jury.

Therefore, members of a jury cannot hold a contractor’s employee personally responsible if he abused drugs or alcohol on the job. They also can’t hear about how much time and money the contractor has invested in safety training classes for employees.

We support the efforts of New York contractor groups that are lobbying legislators to modify Labor Law 240. While the intent of the legislation may be safer jobsites, the absence from the law of any personal accountability for employees isn’t right. Neither is denying contractors the opportunity to defend themselves in court.

Contractors in New York are taking the practical approach in not trying to eliminate the part of the existing law that holds them absolutely liable for their employees’ actions. Whether an accident happens on a jobsite in New York or any other state, courts are going to make contractors liable, even when drugs and alcohol are involved.

Rather than trying to reverse the law, though, New York contractors want to see it reformed so that an employee’s actions in a jobsite accident can be considered in determining damages in any subsequent lawsuit. The proposed reforms would not stop a person hurt in an accident from receiving damages, but they could affect the amount that a contractor has to pay if a jury decides that the employee abused drugs or alcohol, committed a crime or ignored safety training.

What’s making legislators give the reforms a second look now is not necessarily their concern over the well being of contractors in their state. Labor Law 240 is contributing to an insurance crisis that is driving up the cost of new construction, renovation and repairs being done by contractors who have to pay substantially higher insurance premiums.

These premiums have increased by as much as 360% and now can comprise as much as 15% of total job cost. These price hikes are being passed along to contractors’ customers, including homeowners. The higher costs are slowing economic growth and putting jobs at risk, which is what has legislators worried.

If nothing else, the debate over New York’s law does shine a spotlight on the drug problem that besets contractors of all sizes in every part of the country. In recent months we’ve published statistics on the amount of drug and alcohol usage in the construction industry. The numbers are, well, sobering — not just in the prevalence of abuse but also in the impact on a contractor’s bottom line.

In July, for example, we published results of a survey that showed almost a quarter of male construction workers between 18 and 24 had used an illicit drug or drank heavily within the past month. More than half were binge drinkers.

Last month, we quoted a consultant who said that construction workers are twice as likely to use drugs as their counterparts in manufacturing (15.5% vs. 8.1%). Still, only a minority of small contracting firms are testing job applicants or their employees for drugs and alcohol.

The same consultant said that contractors’ employees who abuse drugs and alcohol experience 3.6 times more jobsite accidents, incur three times more medical expenses and are one-third less productive than their drug-free co-workers.

One big lawsuit stemming from a drug-related jobsite accident could cost an employee his job, but it could cost the contractor his company. Contractors that have not instituted a drug and alcohol program need to do so.

Coupled with a continued emphasis on safety training, a drug and alcohol program that combines education and testing will do more to improve safety on jobsites than legislation such as New York’s Labor Law 240.