Posts Tagged ‘incident report’

Construction Contractor Gets OSHA Citations Vacated

In November 2006, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) cited and fined Volks Constructors, a full service heavy industrial contractor, $13,300 for failing to properly record certain workplace injuries and for failing to properly maintain its injury log between January 2002 and April 2006.  The contractor contested the citations on the grounds that they were untimely because they were issued at least six months after the last recorded injury occurred.  Pursuant to OSHA regulations, no citation may be issued after the expiration of six months following the occurrence of any violation.

By way of background, the Occupational Safety and Health Act provides that each employer shall make, keep and preserve records of workplace injuries and illnesses.  OSHA regulations require employers to record information about work-related injuries and illnesses in three ways:

(1)               employers must prepare an incident report and a separate injury log within seven calendar days of receiving information that a recordable injury or illness has occurred;

(2)               employers must prepare a year-end summary report of all recordable injuries during the calendar year, which summary must be certified by a company executive; and

(3)               the employer must save all of these documents for five years from the end of the calendar year that those records cover.

In the case of Volks Constructors, OSHA began an inspection of Volks in May 2006 and discovered that Volks had not been diligent in completing its logs, forms, and summaries between 2002 and 2006.  OSHA then took approximately six months to issue a set of citations to Volks for violations related to Volks’ failure to fully complete incident report forms, its failure to enter injuries in the log, its failure to conduct year-end reviews between 2002 and 2005 and, in at least one instance, its failure to have the proper person certify the year-end review.  Notably, Volks was not cited for any violation of the requirement that it save the forms and the log for five years.

Volks’ improperly recorded injuries occurred between January 11, 2002 at the earliest and April 22, 2006 at the latest.  By the time OSHA issued the citations in November, however, the citations were issued a maximum of 54 months after the earliest improperly recorded injury and a minimum of six months, plus ten days, after the latest improperly recorded injury.

Volks moved to dismiss the citations as untimely because OSHA regulations state that no citation may be issued after the expiration of six months following the occurrence of any violation and the injuries giving rise to Volks’ recording failures took place more than six months before the issuance of the citations.  An OSHA Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) ruled in favor of OSHA and Volks appealed to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (“OSHRC”).  On appeal the Secretary of Labor argued that Volks’ violations were continuing violations that prevented the six month statute of limitations from expiring until the end of the five-year document retention period.  The Secretary essentially argued that because Volks’ violations were still occurring on May 10, 2006 when the inspection began, the citations were timely because they were issued within six months of May 10, 2006.  The Commission agreed with the Secretary and affirmed the citations.  Volks then filed a petition for review with the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

On review, the District of Columbia Circuit was asked to decide whether OSHA’s record-keeping requirement, in conjunction with the five-year regulatory retention period permits OSHA to subvert the six-month statute of limitations.

In reviewing the Commission’s decision, the Circuit Court noted that pursuant to OSHA regulations, OSHA may cite employers for violations within six months of the violation’s occurrence; meaning if an injury is reported on May 1, OSHA can cite an employer for the failure to create a record beginning on May 8, and may issue a valid citation for such failure anytime within the following six months, and only the following six months.  Moreover, once an employer has made such a record, it must also retain it for five years.  If the employer loses or destroys a record before the end of the five year record retention period this is another violation.   OSHA may cite employers for violations of the five year record retention requirement within six months of the violation’s occurrence.  In other words, OSHA may cite a company for failure to maintain its records for the required five years for six months after the fifth year, and only for six months after the fifth year.  In the Volks case, OSHA never cited Volks for a violation of the five year record retention requirement because it could not cite Volks for the loss or destruction of a record that Volks never made.  Rather, OSHA only cited Volks for the failure to create a record.

Thus, the DC Circuit Court concluded that the citations were issued far too late and therefore had to be vacated.  The court concluded that the statutory language which deals with record keeping is not authorization for OSHA to cite the employer for a record-making violation more than six months after the recording failure. Rather, OSHA must enforce record-making violations swiftly or else forfeit the chance to do so.

In reaching this decision, the DC Circuit Court strongly disagreed with the Secretary’s argument that the five year record keeping requirement extended the statute of limitations by noting that the Secretary’s interpretation incorrectly assumed that the obligation to maintain an existing record expands the scope of an otherwise discrete obligation to make the record in the first place.  The Circuit Court viewed the two obligations as distinct stating “one cannot keep what never existed; a company cannot retain a record it never created.”

Notably, the DC Circuit Court distinguished the Volks case as a case of inaction ( i.e., Volks failed to properly create certain reports) from a case of continuing action.  For example, the court noted that where a company continues to subject its employees to unsafe machines, or continues to send its employees into dangerous situations without appropriate training, OSHA may be able to toll the statute of limitations on a continuing violations theory because the dangers created by the violations persist.

Based on the decision reached in the Volks case, if you receive an OSHA citation more than six months after a discrete violation of an OSHA regulation, you should strongly consider contesting the citation on the grounds of timeliness.  The attorneys at Harmon & Davies can assist you with contesting OSHA citations.

This article is authored by attorney Shannon O. Young and is intended for educational purposes and to give you general information and a general understanding of the law only, not to provide specific legal advice.  Any particular questions should be directed to your legal counsel or, if you do not have one, please feel free to contact us.

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