A recent court decision indefinitely extending the time limitation for OSHA to assess repeat violations has serious implications for employers. The case, Triumph Construction Corp. v. Sec. of Labor, involved a repeat excavation-related citation issued to Triumph Construction Corp. in 2014. A prior citation of the same evacuation standard was issued to Triumph in 2009.
Triumph argued that the repeat citation was not appropriate because the amount of time that had passed from the original 2009 citation to the new 2014 alleged violation was outside OSHA’s stated repeat look-back policy in its Field Operations Manual (FOM), which was three years at the time. Under the Obama administration in 2016, the FOM was updated to expand the look back period to five years.
However, an OSHRC Administrative Law Judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the repeat citation. The court pointed out that neither the Occupational Safety and Health Act nor the regulations OSHA had issued under the Act spelled out any time period that limited the issuance of repeat citations. The time limitation set forth in the enforcement manual “is only a guide” and “is not binding on OSHA or the commission.”
In effect, the ruling means OSHA has the discretion, to go as far back as it wishes to identify any prior substantially similar violations to serve as the basis for a “repeat” violation.
Why it’s important
Repeat violations can harm employers in a number of ways. First, the maximum penalties are ten times higher than serious and other-than-serious violations – $129,336 compared to $12,934. Plus, a violation at one location of a multi-establishment company can be used as the basis for a repeat violation at any other location in a fed OSHA state within that organization, a policy established under the Obama administration that still stands.
Yet, even more important is the way that repeat violations are used. OSHA continues to issue the shaming press releases for significant offenses and that includes repeat violations. Also, it increases the possibility of an establishment being placed into the Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP), where they are publicly branded as severe violators, subject to more inspections, and have no way to get out. Further, it can affect insurance premiums and the ability to compete for contracts.
What employers should do
The best practice, of course, is to avoid OSHA inspections and citations. However, if an inspection occurs and minor penalties are issued, don’t assume that the best course of action is to pay the penalty. The court decision has made it clear that the FOM is not binding on OSHA or the Commission and does not create any substantive rights for employers. If a serious citation is issued and confirmed, the risk of a much more costly and damaging repeat violation exists indefinitely. When there is a good faith defense, it may be well worth contesting the violation.
If a citation is confirmed, employers should be vigilant to ensure that citations regarding the same hazards don’t reoccur.
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