A Legal Victory, and Workers’ Memorial Day: We Can Never Forget

During the past couple of months I have been focused on the proposed New York State Budget.  Governor Andrew Cuomo had recommended some provisions that would have negatively impacted workers.  As a result of community involvement, and coalitions between medical, labor and legal organizations, the final budget did not contain any additional, harmful provisions to the injured worker. 

As an attorney who has represented injured workers for more than 25 years, I was able to take a moment to be grateful for the outcome. Unfortunately though, despite this victory workplace injuries and deaths continue to make headlines. Just last week, a worker was electrocuted while working on an elevator in a New York housing complex. He was just 54 years old. The victim was an elevator mechanic’s helper who was working alone in the elevator machine room while his colleague worked in the lobby. Michael Halpin, organizer for Local 1, the International Union of Elevator Constructors, commented in The Gothamist that many people working on elevators are often untrained and that New York State is one of the few states that does not require elevator mechanics to be educated, trained, and licensed. 

While we don’t know the exact cause of the fatality, it is clear that something went tragically wrong. This type of accidental workplace death is far more common than you think, as anyone working in the construction industry is at risk for electrocution or being hurt by an electric current. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released a report showing that in 2014 there were 4,679 deaths with 4,251 involving private workers. One in five worker deaths were in the construction field as a result of falls, but the second leading cause of death was electrocution.

Electricians and their apprentices account for nearly 20 percent of all electrocutions, but all types of skilled construction workers are electrocuted every year, including carpenters, welders, heavy machinery operators, plumbers, and bricklayers. Many construction sites are dangerously close to overhead lines and workers use cranes, bucket trucks, bulldozers, scaffolds, and ladders that may come into contact with electrical wires. The Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) noted in its 20-year review of electrical injuries that the three major causes of fatal electrocutions were contact with overhead lines, contact with wiring transformers or other electrical components, or contact with electric current of machine, tools, appliances or light fixtures. Electric injuries include burns, nerve damage, heart attacks, and neurological damage.  

While construction workers are the most likely to be injured by electricity, many workers are unaware of the potential hazards present in their work environment. A healthcare worker can be electrocuted by a faulty plug on a heart monitor, an office worker typing on a keyboard could be electrocuted by a frayed extension cord, or a utility worker could accidentally touch a live underground wire. The ESFI notes in the review that there has been substantial electrical safety improvement – and that’s a good sign. However, it does nothing to stem the grief felt by the family of the elevator mechanic who recently died on the job.

On April 28, we commemorate Workers’ Memorial Day, an annual event to mourn for the dead and fight for the living. We can never forget those who go to work but never return home. “No one should have to sacrifice their life for their livelihood, because a nation built on the dignity of work must provide safe working conditions for its people.”  Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez 


Catherine M. Stanton is a senior partner in the law firm of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP. She focuses on the area of Workers’ Compensation, having helped thousands of injured workers navigate a highly complex system and obtain all the benefits to which they were entitled. Ms. Stanton has been honored as a New York Super Lawyer, is the past president of the New York Workers’ Compensation Bar Association, the immediate past president of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy  Group, and is an officer in several organizations dedicated to injured workers and their families. She can be reached at 800.692.3717.

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