Springfield, Ill. - A proposed amendment in the state House of Representatives here is attempting to resurrect the so-called Structural Work Act - a move that contractor organizations say would be costly to contractors and their employees.
The amendment to House Bill 2094, filed in early April, creates the Construction Safety Act. The Mechanical Contractors Association of Chicago and others argue the decision would reinstate the Structural Work Act, which lawmakers repealed in 1995.
According to Evan Williams, vice president of external relations for the MCA of Chicago, the act greatly broadens the ability of an employee injured on a job to sue a variety of parties than currently allowed under state law.
Williams said if the act passes, the immediate impact on contractors would be a large increase in their general liability insurance premiums.
“The insurance industry has predicted at least a double-digit increase in insurance premiums,” he said. “They need to protect themselves against the potential liability that the contractors and owners they're insuring on construction projects could get sued under this new private right of action.”
Williams pointed to a 1998 study by the Watson-Wyatt Group stating the act would cost Illinois employers $113 million annually in direct insurance costs and as much as $170 million when factoring in such things as indirect costs, court appearances, depositions and other expenses. Williams said this would force contractors to pass such costs on to consumers.
Contractors or others sued under the act also would be responsible for proving whether a jobsite actually was safe, which can be very challenging, according to Williams.
“One of the really difficult things about the Structural Work Act is that it has a burden of proof on the contractor and others who can be sued that is really difficult for them to meet,” he said. “If you take it all the way to trial, you're probably going to get a pretty decent judgment against you. Secondly, a lot of people end up settling for some pretty substantial sums.”
In order to fight the proposed act, industry groups throughout the state formed The Coalition to Protect Illinois Jobs. According to the group, the Structural Work Act was a 1907 Illinois law originally intended to allow certain employees compensation for workplace injuries that occur on a scaffold. This was prior to the enactment of the Illinois Workers' Compensation Law in 1911.
With the passage of Illinois' Workers' Compensation Law, the Structural Work Act remained dormant until the 1950s, when an Illinois court decision struck down a provision that prohibited third party lawsuits, according to the coalition. From that point, until its repeal in 1995, a worker could collect benefits under workers' compensation and then sue everyone involved in the project regardless of fault, including owners, suppliers, contractors, subcontractors and designers, the coalition argues.
The only state that currently has such a law is New York.
The Illinois coalition maintains that under the proposed act, employers face increased legal costs defending both workers' compensation and Construction Safety Act claims.
Williams said injured workers already have “no-fault recourse” under the state's workers' compensation system.
“If (workers) get hurt, no matter what the reason, they can go through the workers' compensation system and be compensated,” he said. “In 2005, a lot of the benefits under workers' compensation were increased. What I'm told is that it's one of the better workers' compensation systems in the country.”
Supporters of the Construction Safety Act, including its chief sponsor, Illinois Rep. John Fritchey, D-Chicago, have said the measure would improve protections for construction workers in Illinois. They also argue the act is a response to the increasing dangers of working in construction.
Yet, Williams countered that worker safety statistics remain high in Illinois. Citing figures from Illinois Department of Public Health and the Workers Compensation Commission, he said there was a 53% decline in worker injuries between 1991 and 2003.
“Any good contractor is already doing all of the right things and they have a safe working environment,” he said.
“Worker safety has never been better. You have all sorts of motivations for why contractors want to keep a worksite safe.”