On Safety

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Increase employer liability?

April 15, 2014

While working on an article about New York state’s "Scaffold Law", an interesting question popped up: Should employers face increased liability for workplace injuries and illnesses?

In the United States, the workers’ compensation system is a no-fault system. When workplace injuries occur, employees receive compensation instead of being able to sue their employer.

But in New York, the state’s Scaffold Law has been interpreted as allowing workers – under certain circumstances – to sue their employer for height-related injuries. Many industry stakeholders are pushing for this law to be changed, as the liability employers face increases the cost of business.

However, one supporter of the law I spoke with, Jeff Grabelsky, argued that this exact reason – employers’ increased liability – is why the law is a good thing.

“The Scaffold Law represents a better public policy in that I believe the liability increases the likelihood the employer will behave properly,” Grabelsky, an associate director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University, told me in a recent phone conversation.

Employers have all sorts of incentives to ensure a safe workplace – threats of government penalties, increased workers’ comp costs and moral reasons. Should increased liability be another reason? Would workplaces become safer if employees – in addition to workers’ comp – had the right to sue employers over occupational injuries?

Let me know what you think in the comments below, and check out the May issue of Safety+Health for my article exploring how a recent study has added fuel to the debate over New York’s law.

The opinions expressed in "On Safety" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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