Why OSHA’s Statute of Limitations doesn’t really matter in PSM/RMP

You may have recently heard a headline that OSHA is losing their right to cite you for something that happened more than six months ago. I’ve heard a disturbing amount of people tell me that this means that many PSM issues can be ignored, because – as long as they “get away” with it for six months – they are uncitable. From the vantage point of safety, this is absurd thinking. Taking such a risk, simply because you are unlikely to be caught, would be the equivalent of not wearing your seatbelt because you aren’t particularly likely to get in a car accident in any given drive. The difference is that when things go wrong in Process Safety, the results are usually far worse than the average car accident.

That said, let’s set aside SAFETY for a second, and look at where this idea comes from:

The Occupational Safety & Health Act of 1970 states in 29USC658(c) that “No citation may be issued under this section after the expiration of six months following the occurrence of any violation.”

Years ago, however, OSHA proposed and published a rule stating that “ongoing obligations” required some records to be kept longer – specifically injury and illness records. They stated, in part: “The OSH Act’s statute of limitations does not define OSHA violations, or address when violations occur, nor does the language…preclude continuing recordkeeping violations.” OSHA has actually issued several citations for items that were past the six month statute of limitations, in once case for an ongoing MOC violation that occurred over twelve years ago.

OSHA lost several court cases with this “ongoing violation” issue. The House recently passed a CRA resolution to throw out this rule. Assuming the CRA continues, OSHA will not only continue to lose in court, but they will be barred from issuing a “substantially similar” rule in the future. This has led to a widespread belief that PSM violations that occurred over six months ago will no longer be citable. While that may be technically true, the reality is that they will still be citable as long as OSHA does the legwork to write the citations correctly.

For my example, let me use one of the most common problems I see in Compliance Audits: A recommendation (from PHA or former Compliance Audit) from well over a year ago regarding the identification of surface corrosion on ammonia piping that recommends an increased frequency of inspections and/or remediation of the protective coating.

If that recommendation was unaddressed, in the past OSHA would often cite the PHA or Compliance Audit element from which the recommendation came. Assuming that they are now limited to six months, and the recommendation is older than that, OSHA can NO LONGER cite you for that violation.

Super. Congratulations… But, if OSHA could cite you for not following up on the recommendation, then it’s likely because the pipe is still showing signs of corrosion. That being the case, they CAN cite you for a 1910.119(j)(5) deficiency because the pipe IS rusted during the inspection.

Put a simpler way – they can use the violation from the past to lead them to a violation occurring in-the-moment. Nearly ALL PSM citations can be rewritten to in-the-moment violations.

Furthermore, although the old recommendation can’t be used for a citatable situation directly, it is PROOF POSITIVE that the employer was AWARE of the hazard.

Worse yet, most EPA violations are only subject to the 28USC2462 five-year statute of limitations. It’s not like an OSHA CSHO or AD can’t pick up a phone and call the local EPA office.

TLDR: The end result of OSHA losing their ability to cite for something in PSM that happened over six months ago: Nothing, really.

About Brian Chapin

PSM / RMP Compliance Consultant

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