By Gary Bueme
Safety violations at a Buffalo construction site nearly took my life. Now the Scaffold Law, which protects construction workers like me, is under attack from the same people who tried to blame me for my accident.
I was proud of my job as a carpenter. I worked my way up to construction foreman, and I could provide for my family. The day I fell 36 feet was the last day of my career in construction.
Laborers had poured concrete on the first and second floor and a tarp was put over the opening where a stairwell was to be built in the southeast corner, in order to hold heat in the floor below. I found out after the accident that a temporary staircase was ordered but had not yet arrived. All I had to work with was a ladder that was exposed to the elements on a January day in Buffalo.
As I attempted to get on the ladder, I slipped and fell backward into the opening, striking a wooden railing near the opening on the first floor.
There was no hand railing around the stairwell opening on the second floor and most of the opening was left open without any planking or protective covering. There was no harness or safety line for me, and no safety net below me.
I am lucky to be alive. When I hit the concrete basement floor, I shattered my heels, ankle and tailbone, and suffered a serious spinal cord injury. My tailbone punctured my colon and shut down my digestive system. I was in a lot of pain.
I still go to physical therapy because I have trouble walking. I can’t lift anything because three vertebrae in my back were fused.
We need strong worker safety laws because construction work is dangerous. Thankfully, New York has the Scaffold Law, which protects workers at heights. The law says that when a worker is injured and basic safety laws have been broken, the owner and contractor who control the site can be held responsible.
My life today would be different if the contractor had simply followed the law and provided me with a basic harness, net or railing. But workers who complain a lot in this business don’t get more work; they get laid off and the contractor finds another person to do the job.
The insurance company also tried to blame the accident on me. It claimed I tried to swing off the ladder to get on to the first floor, like some kind of action hero. But there were two witnesses who confirmed my account of the accident while the contractor’s claim was unsupported by anyone or anything.
I won my case, but the fight continues. Representatives of insurance companies and contractors want to weaken the law to avoid being held responsible for worker injuries.
So the next time you hear them talk about the expense of the Scaffold Law, remember that it is victims like me who would pay for their so-called “reforms.”
Gary Bueme was severely injured on the job in 1996.