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US Court: Ignorance of Safety Standards Not a Defense

Monday, April 16, 2018

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A Georgia court has ruled against a company that claimed its foreman didn’t know the safety requirements for fall protection and therefore should not have been handed a nearly $50,000 fine after a worker fatally fell 15 feet through a skylight.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit Court went through the definition the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s use of “willful” when it read its decision in Martin Mechanical Contractors Inc. v. Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor, noting “[T]he definition of willful in this circuit is, in its simplest form, an intentional disregard of, or plain indifference to, OSHA requirements.”

What Happened

At around 2 p.m. on Nov. 20, 2015, the crews of Athens, Georgia-based Martin Mechanical Contractors were working on the roof of a building when one employee fell 15 feet through an unguarded skylight.

© iStock.com / Marilyn Nieves

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit Court went through the definition the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s use of “willful” when it read its decision in Martin Mechanical Contractors Inc. v. Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor, noting “[T]he definition of willful in this circuit is, in its simplest form, an intentional disregard of, or plain indifference to, OSHA requirements.”

According to reports, a three-person team was installing an HVAC system at a car dealership in Athens where the roof had been perforated in anticipation of skylight installations. The rough openings were covered only with plastic sheathing.

Reports say that an employee was preparing to install a roof curb and was working with a saw on the metal roof. The saw became jammed, and reports say that the when the employee freed the saw from the roof he lost his balance, falling to his left and through one of the holes. The employee was transported to the hospital where reports say he died from head trauma.

OSHA cited the company with a willful violation of its duty of provide and enforce the use of fall protection and a fine of $49,000.

The company contested the decision and claimed that its “flawed” training program left the foreman unprepared. This, the company said, meant that OSHA’s "willful" grading was excessive.

The Case

The court rejected this argument and stated, in part: “To hold that such inadequacy—and the resulting unfamiliarity—precludes classification of a violation as willful would perversely allow (the contractor) to use its ineffective training as a defense against OSHA’s most serious charge.”

During the testimonies, the foreman said he believed his crew would be safe so long as they maintained a set distance away from the openings, and he admitted to often not providing fall protection equipment for jobs on flat roofs.

The case states that the foreman “did not instruct anyone to wear fall protection, nor did he provide fall protection equipment to his crew—even though he had the equipment on-site in his truck.”

The court went a step further, stating that it believed that even if the foreman had been adequately informed, he would have disregarded the standard’s requirements.

   

Tagged categories: Fall protection; Fatalities; Health and safety; Lawsuits; OSHA; OSHA; Regulations; Safety

Comment from Tom Bright, (4/16/2018, 6:02 AM)

Harness tether itself can be a trip hazard. Power tools require earplugs -- how often are fines levied for that?


Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (4/16/2018, 9:21 AM)

Falling off a roof is much more likely to result in death than failing to wear earplugs. Easy to go see that in the statistics. Having fines levied more often and at higher amounts for greater hazards makes sense to me. For myself, I'm always wearing my harness at heights (100% tieoff) and my earplugs in loud environments. Base gear is safety glasses, boots, vest and hat anytime I'm on a project.


Comment from Michael Halliwell, (4/16/2018, 12:27 PM)

Ignorance of the law is not a defense. Period. Full Stop. If the company wants to say "willful" doesn't apply because the Foreman didn't know the rules, means that the company, who work at heights regularly, must have willfully had a "flawed" safety program. Tom B: up here, they issue fines to the employee for that, Tom S: good on ya...that's they way it is supposed to be.


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