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Scaffolding Accidents

To passersby, scaffolding may look like a complicated structure of boards and pipes that looks more like a life-size Jenga game than a safe structure for construction workers.

For the construction industry, scaffolding is relied on to get the job done and actually designed to protect workers. It is also dangerous.

The nature of a construction site presents inherent dangers for workers every day, but scaffolding is often a huge factor in serious or fatal construction site injuries.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, scaffolding is a term that means a temporary structure, not meant for long-term use, that elevates and supports workers and equipment during the construction of a building.

Because construction workers are working from this platform, it is, in essence, the floor for work. Scaffolding collapses are really dangerous for all involved, on the scaffolding or near it. In fact, pedestrians often get injured when scaffolds collapse. Because scaffolds are often very high above the ground, scaffolding injuries are fatal, far too often.

In the United States, roughly 2.3 million construction workers, which is about 65 percent of the construction industry, work on scaffolds.  The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that about 60 deaths and 4,500 workplace injuries every year are attributable to scaffolding falls. Scaffolding falls make up about one-quarter of the country’s fatal falls at work every year. Construction fatalities make up 20 percent of the nation’s workplace fatalities each year, or one in five workplace deaths.

For employers, accidents involving scaffolding are estimated to cost about $90 million in lost workdays.

Those who have been injured in a scaffolding accident, both the workers and the people who are in the vicinity during the incident, can file suit against the company that built the structure for negligence. An experienced personal injury lawyer can be contacted; those injured from this type of accident do not need to rely simply on the funds available via Workers’ Compensation insurance.

Scaffolding is Built by Third-Party Firms

Although construction workers are actually constructing buildings while workers are on scaffolding, the scaffolding itself is not built by the construction crew, but by a separate group.

For this reason, the third party hired to put the scaffolding together may be the group liable for damages from a scaffolding accident, rather than the construction company the accident impacted.

The design is often from the construction company, which would be the employer of the injured workers, but the construction of the scaffolding is done by a separate company.

It is important to keep in mind that because the scaffolding is built separately, like a defective products lawsuit in a workplace injury, a suit for a scaffolding accident will not involve the employer, so it does not impact the Workers’ Compensation insurance agreement between the employer and the worker.

Reasons for Scaffolding Accidents

Although there could be thousands of reasons for an accident on a construction site, the BLS estimates that over 70 percent of the scaffolding accidents are the result of the following three issues:

  • Defective equipment or improper assembly
  • Slipping or tripping due to slippery surfaces or lack of guardrails
  • Falling objects from above the worker, or the workers below

The BLS lists the other causes as follows:

  • Electrocution, which can happen when scaffolds and equipment are too close to power or utility lines
  • Environmental conditions, such as wind, rain, and the presence of hazardous substances
  • Inadequate fall protection
  • Overloading

Besides these reasons, workers make mistakes. People can take one step too far in the wrong direction or overload a scaffold with the weight of equipment and people. The truth is, much like climbing a ladder, working on scaffolding comes with inherent dangers.

Common Scaffolding Injuries

Although there are all kinds of injuries possible with equipment and people falling at once from a raised platform, the ones listed below are common in scaffolding accidents. The seriousness of these types of injuries requires ongoing medical care, often home care as well, and may require that the worker either gets a different type of job or does not work for an extended period of time; sometimes the worker can never return to a job.

Some of the more common scaffolding injuries include the following:

Brain injuries. Falling from a high place often means head trauma on its own. If scaffolding collapses, the fall is often made worse by equipment, other items, and other people crashing down together.

The term traumatic brain injury (TBI) is used often to describe damage to the brain that changes the life of the injured worker going forward with difficulties in the following:

  • Cognitive processing
  • Communications
  • Speech problems
  • Sensory problems
  • Balance and coordination issues
  • Difficulty controlling emotions, leading to poor judgment

TBI can require long-term care and extensive rehabilitation; it often means the worker cannot work for an extended. It can also be fatal.

Spinal cord injuries. Falls also commonly result in injuries to the neck or back. If the fall results in damage to the spinal cord, which is essential for movement and other functioning, it can result in permanent paralysis.

This type of injury means extensive medical care, medical equipment, home assistance, and very likely, the worker not returning to the job they held before the accident.

Crush injuries. If people get trapped underneath boards and equipment and are unable to move out of the way, limbs may get crushed under the weight. Sometimes this means that doctors will be unable to repair the damage and the crush injury requires amputation.

Amputations are life changing for the injured worker. There is emotional impact; physical pain, particularly with prostheses fittings and the phantom pains many amputees experience; and medical care that will be needed for the rest of the worker’s life. These changes are combined with the likely inability to work for some time, or the need to train for a different type of work and switch to a job that works with the different physical abilities of an amputee.

Broken bones. Broken bones can heal in a very straightforward way, or the process can be complex and involve surgeries and hardware. Compound fractures, which involve multiple fractures to the bone and require surgery to mend the fragments together with plates, screws, or pins, take longer to heal. Also, that hardware sometimes needs to be removed later in life, in what will be another surgery.

If the break is fairly straightforward, the worker will still need to rest the injured area for weeks, possibly months, and that means that person will also be out of work for several weeks to months. Diagnostic tests and some kind of physical protection for the injured area, such as a cast or brace, will also be needed. This also impacts day-to-day life and how quickly a person can do everything from taking a shower to opening the front door.

Wrongful Death Suits

When a worker is fatally injured on the job, Workers’ Compensation insurance offers a death benefit and includes funds toward the cost of the worker’s funeral as well.

In those cases, families can exercise the option of a wrongful death suit, which is a products liability suit and does not impact the Workers’ Compensation agreement. The problem with Workers’ Compensation is that although it may provide income and cover bills for the injured worker, it does not target what may likely be the source of the problem. A defective products lawsuit targets defective equipment, defective machines, tools, dangerous chemicals, as well as defective marketing and information on the product that may have misled workers and employers to use the product incorrectly.

Some products come with mistakes in the design, some are built incorrectly on the manufacturing line, and some are simply installed incorrectly at the site. This can mean a suit against the manufacturer, the installer, the seller, or possibly all three parties.

Winning a wrongful death suit may do more than just provide financial compensation for the loved ones and dependents; it may provide for the safety of others in the future. A wrongful death suit can force a manufacturer, installer, or seller to go back to the drawing board and come up with a better product.

Likewise, with a third-party lawsuit against the company that built the scaffolding, the loved ones of a fatally injured worker have an opportunity for compensation beyond what Workers’ Compensation will offer. It will not replace the lost loved one, but it may well take care of the family members left behind. It will also force the scaffolding company to revise its procedures.

Government Standards for Scaffolding

From construction of the scaffolding, to use by workers, and ending with dismantling scaffolds, the federal government revised standards on scaffolds in 1996. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) set performance-based criteria to protect employees from scaffold-related hazards such as falls, falling objects, structural instability, electrocution, or overloading. It also put rules in place for protection from falling objects, ladders, weather conditions, aerial lifts, and stilts.

The OSHA regulations are the job site safety and health standards for job sites across the United States, but state and local governments have construction laws and building codes as well.

In New Jersey, for example, the erection of a scaffold requires a permit. The process may differ somewhat from community to community in the state, but in Newark, for example, scaffolding permits require a separate hold harmless document that the city will not be held liable for an accident, are effective for 30 days from the time they are issued and require proof of insurance coverage of at least $1 million.

Pennsylvania also has requirements for scaffolding, and the Pennsylvania Department of General Services requires specifically that inspection be conducted on safety aspects, weight limits, and the strength of the construction before use.

In all states, OSHA laws prevail.

Construction Accidents

Work-related injuries can have life-changing effects on victims. Unfortunately, every year, people are injured at work.

According to the BLS, the number of workplace injuries and illnesses has been steadily dropping in the United States since 1972, when there were just under 11 injuries per 100 workers for the year. In 2019, that number decreased to 2.8 per 100 workers.

Although the workplace environment may have become safer than it was in 1972, there is still much to be done to protect workers on the job. Even worse, fatalities occur far too often, with the BLS citing about 15 deaths a day around the United States in 2019, a significant drop from 38 deaths per day in 1972.

About 20 percent of those deaths each year, or one in five deaths in the American workplace, are in the construction industry.

Steps to Take following a Workplace Accident

Here are three important steps for an injured worker to take, or their loved ones if the worker cannot do so, following an accident at work:

Seek medical attention. A lot of workers fear seeking medical care following a workplace accident. This is an unnecessary fear. Workers’ Compensation insurance is a safety net mandated by the states of both New Jersey and Pennsylvania. A worker tells the employer of the injury, the employer will file with the insurance company, and the care will be covered by this insurance system.

Prompt medical care is important not just for the emergency, but also for establishing the Workers’ Compensation case. The information gathered will be used to establish a care plan for recuperation. It will also be used as evidence by the insurance company for claims going forward. For the employer, that established record of documentation will provide information on a timeframe for the worker to return to work, if the worker can return to work and if, indeed, the worker needs to transition into a different job.

Notify the employer. These two things are likely to happen at the same time: seeking medical help and notifying the employer. This is particularly true if the worker requires emergency medical services at the scene. But not all workplace injuries unfold in a way that the employer is made aware right away.

For the sake of paperwork and a smooth rollout of the Workers’ Compensation program, the quicker the employer is notified of the incident, the better. The employer is required to file a claim to get the process started.  Lawyers recommend that this notification be written for documentation reasons, although New Jersey state law does not require it.  It can be an email, or a loved one or coworker can write down what happened if the worker cannot, to ensure that the documentation is there. However, Pennsylvania asks injured employees to notify the state within seven days of injury if the injury cost a day of work or more. For fatal injuries, the timeframe for notification is 48 hours.

The employer is required to immediately report to the insurer, or in the case of companies that are self-insured, the company point person for handling Workers’ Compensation.

Consult a Workers’ Compensation lawyer. Workers’ Compensation does cover all employees, with very few exceptions, in either Pennsylvania or New Jersey. But that does not mean the process is smooth. Some insurers deny claims. Medical care needed for the injured worker is likely to be time consuming. Experienced Workers’ Compensation lawyers work with both the victim and the victim’s family to get the compensation needed for recovery despite obstacles that may well get in the way. A lawyer is often needed because the Workers’ Compensation case may well become a third-party lawsuit for an accident at work causing injury or death.

If an Employer Claims There is No Workers’ Compensation

The law in New Jersey requires employers, other than the federal government, which has its own programs, to provide either Workers’ Compensation insurance or an approved self-insurance program. The self-insurance program has to cover claims for worker injuries, illness, or death.

In Pennsylvania, employers in almost all industries are required to carry Workers’ Compensation insurance. The exceptions here are also federal employees who already have coverage; union members who have coverage through the union; domestic workers; agricultural workers who make less than $1,200 a year or work less than 30 days a year; executives can opt out of the insurance for the company they lead; and those who have religious beliefs that conflict with the Workers’ Compensation insurance policy.

If a worker is told there is no coverage for injuries and illness on the job, this is illegal. The employee should consult with a Workers’ Compensation lawyerif they are told the injury will not be covered by insurance or if threatened with firing or demotion as the result of making a claim.  A lawyer will advocate for the victim to seek funds for the inevitable medical bills and the injured worker’s rights.

What Does Workers’ Compensation Insurance Offer?

Workers’ Compensation insurance is a safety net system that covers workers for injuries and illnesses from the first day on the job and curbs lawsuits against the employer for work accidents.

It could be compared with no-fault car insurance in the way claims are handled. Much in the way of no-fault car insurance, the benefits are available regardless of who was at fault, for the injured worker or the loved ones of a worker who died.

The following are the benefits that will be included under a Workers’ Compensation insurance case, from the first day on the job:

Medical bills. Hospital stays, surgeries, occupational and physical therapy, needed medical equipment, and follow-ups with additional doctors will be needed. These are all covered under the Workers’ Compensation insurance claim. When a worker dies of a work-related accident or illness, the medical bills will be covered by the Workers’ Compensation claim.

Income coverage. This is also referred to as a wage-loss benefit and is usually about two-thirds of a weekly paycheck. Income coverage begins after the injured employee has lost seven days of work. This is another reason for the worker to let their employer know quickly that they need medical attention and are injured. The employer filing with the Workers’ Compensation insurance means that the wage-loss benefit is likely to come promptly once all parties are made aware of the situation.

Temporary partial disability. This means that injured worker will be able to go back to work full time once recuperated from the incident but will work at a reduced level until given approval for full-time work by a doctor.

Temporary total disability. These benefits are for workers who will be returning to work following release from medical care. The benefits are converted to permanent disability benefits for those who will not be able to return to work.

Permanent partial disability. Often this means a worker lost a body part, including fingers and toes along with hands, arms, legs, feet, eyes, and ears. A lump-sum payment is provided once temporary disability benefits are finished, as well as partial disabilities payments weekly with persistent injuries.

Permanent total disability. This benefit is for people who cannot return to work or are deemed to be less than 50 percent recovered after 450 weeks. These benefits are also paid when a combination of injuries makes it difficult for the employee to get a job after the accident.

Cherry Hill Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at Kotlar, Hernandez & Cohen, LLC Represent Construction Workers Injured on the Job

If you or a loved one has been injured in a scaffolding or construction accident, reach out to the Cherry Hill Workers’ Compensation lawyers at Kotlar, Hernandez & Cohen, LLC. We are accustomed to working with employers and insurers to make sure that injured workers receive the benefits they need to recuperate. Call us at 856-751-7676 or contact us online for a free consultation. Our offices are in Mount Laurel, Cherry Hill, Trenton, and Vineland, New Jersey; and Trevose, Pennsylvania. We serve clients throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

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