The Utah State Supreme Court recently concluded that employers aren’t responsible for the safety of subcontractors – contrary to the multi-employer work site safety doctrine set forth by the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration.The ruling in Hughes Gen. Contractors, Inc. v. Utah Labor Comm’n doesn’t have any immediate impact on those filing workers’ compensation claims in Atlanta, but other courts could be influenced by the ruling when faced with similar situations.
The multi-employer work site safety doctrine was first established by OSHA back in 1994. The law holds that when there are work sites with numerous employers – both construction and non-construction firms – citations for work safety violations will normally be issued to employers whose employees are exposed to hazards.
But, the law says, in addition to that, other employers can be held responsible as well. For example, the firm that actually created the hazard can be cited (the creating employer). Additionally, the employer who has the authority to ensure the hazard is corrected can be cited (the controlling employer). Federal regulators may also choose to cite the employer who has the responsibility to correct the hazard (the correcting employer).
Having such an expansive degree of accountability has helped to ensure greater workplace safety overall.
However, Utah’s high court has found that the federal law is “incompatible” with state law. Specifically, the court found, the responsibility for ensuring workplace safety should be limited to the employer whose employees have been exposed to hazard or harm.
The decision stems from an appeal filed by a general contracting agency, which was slapped with citations for numerous safety violations while overseeing a high school renovation project. Court documents reveal the project involved some 100 subcontractors, including a masonry subcontractor.
During the course of the project, the general contractor was cited by the state’s OSHA division for a host of violations, which included the improper use and erection of scaffolding that was used by the masonry workers.
The federal regulator cited both the general contractor and the subcontractor for failure to inspect and take corrective action of the safety violations. In determining that the general contractor was responsible, OSHA regulators pointed to the multi-employer work site safety doctrine. The agency determined that the general contractor was responsible because it was the controlling employer.
The general contractor then contested the citation, challenging the very bedrock of the case, alleging that the federal law was not legally viable.
Both the administrative law judge and the state labor commission’s appellate board upheld the doctrine, basing the decision on interpretations of the 1999 federal ruling in Universal Construction Co. v. Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
The appellate court then certified the case to the state supreme court, which reversed.
While the law has been repeatedly challenged and upheld under federal law, the state’s high court determined that it had never before had occasion to review it as a matter of Utah law, which runs contrary to the federal law.
We expect this case will result in numerous other employer challenges which, if successful, would lead to the further erosion of workplace safety and more work-related injuries.
If you or a loved one has been injured on the job in Atlanta, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C. For a free consultation call 1-404-303-7770 today.
Hughes Gen. Contractors, Inc. v. Utah Labor Comm’n, Jan. 30, 2014, Utah Supreme Court
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