How to get Willful OSHA Citations & Fines

The incident we are discussing today is from a recent ruling in the United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit where they recently denied a petition for review in the case of “DANA CONTAINER, INC. v. SECRETARY OF LABOR.” While this particular citation concerns “Permit Required Confined Spaces,” the lessons are applicable to all OSHA rules.

The case arose after toxic fumes in a large container knocked out a man who was working inside it. From the ruling:

In the cold early morning hours of January 28, 2009, one of Dana’s supervisors, Bobby Fox, was on the third shift along with former employee Cesar Jaimes. Fox was working on a trailer and encountered a problem with a clogged valve just as he was about to begin the mechanical cleaning process. Disregarding the safety rules, he entered the tank prior to cleaning it, without attaching himself to the retrieval device or following the entry permit procedures. After a short while, Jaimes looked inside, saw Fox unconscious in a pool of chemical sludge, and called the Summit Fire Department. The firefighters hoisted him out, rinsed off the chemical residue, and transported him to the hospital. Fox was diagnosed with “Syncope and Collapse, Toxic Effect of Unspecified Gas, Fume, or Vapor” (i.e., fainting).

While the employee was rescued by the local fire department, his employer, Dana Container, was cited for Willful violations by OSHA and has been fighting those citations – through an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), then the OSHA Review Commission and now through the Circuit Court.

Here is a proven three-step plan to get Willful OSHA citations

1)  Have a supervisor break the rules: The employer tried to prove that the unsafe actions were “unpreventable employee misconduct” such that the employer was unaware of the issue. OSHA is required to prove that the employer knew about the problem.

In this case, the supervisor’s knowledge can be imputed to the employer… This path for imputing knowledge is common in employment law. When an employee is acting within the scope of her employment, her knowledge is typically imputed to the employer… Conduct is “within the scope of employment when [it is] ‘actuated, at least in part, by a purpose to serve the [employer],’ even if it is forbidden by the employer.” Here, Fox knew that he was violating the rules when he entered the dirty tank in order to kick loose a stuck valve so that he could then drain the tank. His act was in furtherance of Dana’s tank cleaning business.

2) Have a track-record of failing to follow your own safety programs: OSHA was able to show that the employer should have been able to foresee the supervisor misconduct because they knew (or should have known) there were long-standing issues with their program:

There was evidence showing that nearly all of the tank entry permits at Dana’s Summit facility contained errors or omissions. Some indicated that the entries had exceeded the maximum duration of 20 minutes by over an hour. Others had other flaws: for example, they lacked the requisite air monitoring results; they failed to show the duration for which the permit was valid; they indicated that employees had not reviewed material safety data sheets (or had no information about review); and they failed to name either the entrant or the entry attendant. Whether these errors and omissions occurred because the employees were violating entry procedures or if they reflected only recording problems, there is no evidence that the Facility Manager followed up on the deficiencies. The Commission was therefore justified in concluding that there was a failure to enforce Dana’s safety program… The Commission was entitled to find that the uncorrected permit violations exhibited a pattern of disregard for the rules at Dana. Even in the face of a robust written program, lax disregard of the rules can send a message to employees that a company does not make safety a priority. In such an environment, conduct such as Fox’s is reasonably foreseeable… Dana’s effort to persuade us that the Commission erred by rejecting the “unpreventable employee misconduct” defense also falls short. To use the defense an employer must show that it took steps to discover violations of its safety rules and that it effectively enforced the rules when violations were discovered.

3) Have a shaky track record on enforcement of your own policies: Dana cited a OSHA Review Commission case holding that an employer can demonstrate that the willful conduct of its supervisory personnel should not be imputed to the employer if the employer can demonstrate a good faith effort to comply with the standard.

The Commission…found that although, on the one hand, Dana had work rules that were communicated to its employees and had submitted evidence of three instances of disciplinary action, on the other hand the facility manager had never disciplined an employee for improperly completing permits or for the violations apparent on the face of the permits. The Commission concluded that Dana had therefore failed to take action when violations of safety rules were plain, as would have been required in a good faith effort.

Working backwards, you can avoid willful citations by:

  1. Establishing clear, compliant policies on OSHA rules.
  2. Requiring Supervisors to be responsible for the implementation of our policies, the enforcement of those policies and the documentation of our adherence to those policies.
  3. Requiring the Safety Department to periodically audit the compliance to our policies of field supervisors and personnel.

P.S. Bonus: It’s never a good idea to get in the news:

“A local TV news crew broadcast the rescue that morning, and OSHA inspector Jami Bachus happened to see it before heading to work. She volunteered to inspect Dana’s facility and did so, arriving at the Summit station within three hours of the accident.”

About Brian Chapin

PSM / RMP Compliance Consultant
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