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Ignorance of OSHA Requirements Does Not Preclude Willful Violation

    Client Alerts
  • April 11, 2018

Employers found to have committed repeat or willful violations of Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards are subject to citation penalties of 10 times those for ordinary violations, and in some cases additional civil penalties or even criminal prosecution. Last month in an unpublished decision, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a claim from an employer that a violation could not be willful if the supervisor in question was unaware of the underlying OSHA requirements.

In Martin Mechanical Contractors, Inc. v. Sec., U.S. Dept. of Labor, the employer received a willful fall protection citation following the death of an employee who was not wearing a personal fall arrest system and who fell through an unguarded skylight. The employer appealed, and a federal administrative law judge (ALJ) upheld the citation on the basis that the employer’s lack of fall protection precautions demonstrated reckless disregard for the safety of its employees. The employer appealed the decision to the Eleventh Circuit, partly on the grounds that by definition a violation cannot be willful if the foreman in charge of the crew was unaware of the fall protection rule’s requirements.

The court had little difficulty rejecting this argument and affirming the ALJ’s decision. OSHA does not have to prove intentional disregard of its safety standards to cite an employer for a willful violation. If the employer disregards its employees’ safety, this is the same as intentional violation of the standard. In this case, the foreman was aware of the unguarded skylights on the roof. If anything, his unfamiliarity with fall protection requirements demonstrates the employer’s reckless disregard for its employees’ safety. Any other finding would incentivize employers to avoid safety training in order to prevent serious OSHA claims.