By Benjamin D. Briggs, Brent I. ClarkJames L. Curtis, Patrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

iStock_000042612884_MediumSeyfarth Synopsis: In an interesting outcome, an OSHRC Administrative Law Judge recently vacated a citation to an alleged “controlling employer” based on 5th Circuit precedent – despite being contrary with OSHA policy and other OSHRC precedent.

A recent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (Commission) Administrative Law Judge, Brian A. Duncan’s decision, in Hensel Phelps Construction Co., Docket No. 15-1638 (April 28, 2017), considered whether Respondent, as the general contractor for the project, can be held liable for the violation as a “controlling employer.”  Additionally, the parties argued and stipulated that under 5th Circuit case law, that OSHA’s “controlling employer” policy has been invalidated and is unenforceable.

The Commission has held that “an employer who either creates or controls the cited hazard has a duty under § 5(a)(2) of the Act, 29 U.S.C. § 666(a)(2), to protect not only its own employees, but those of other employers ‘engaged in the common undertaking’.” McDevitt Street Bovis, Docket No. 97-1918 (Sept. 28, 2000).  “An employer may be held responsible for the violations of other employers ‘where it could reasonably be expected to prevent or detect and abate the violations due to its supervisory authority and control over the worksite.”’ Summit Contractors, Inc., Docket No. 05-0839 (Aug. 19, 2010).

In the facts in this case, according to the ALJ, the Respondent had overall construction management authority on the project.  Pursuant to its contract with the City of Austin, and as the jobsite general contractor, Respondent also had authority through its officials and agents to stop construction work performed by subcontractors when hazardous conditions were found, and to prevent them from continuing work due to safety concerns.  Respondent’s onsite safety managers had previously exercised control over jobsite safety by stopping subcontractor work, and by removing subcontractor employees from the jobsite.  In fact, “Respondent’s Area Superintendent … and … Project Superintendent … were actually present when CVI employees were performing work in the unprotected area of the excavation.”

However, this violation occurred at a jobsite in Austin, Texas, which was under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.  In 1981, the Fifth Circuit, according to the ALJ, ruled that the OSH Act, its legislative history, and implemented regulations, serve to protect “an employer’s own employees from workplace hazards.”  ALJ’s emphasis.  Melerine v. Avondale Shipyards, Inc., 659 F.2d 706 (5th Cir. 1981).  In this case, the ALJ clarified that that “where it is highly probable that a Commission decision would be appealed to a particular circuit, the Commission has generally applied the precedent of that circuit in deciding the case – even though it may differ from the Commission’s precedent.” Kerns Bros. Tree Service, Docket No. 96-1719 (Mar. 16, 2000).

Therefore, the ALJ ruled that “applying 5th Circuit precedent, Respondent cannot be liable for a violation of the Act based solely upon a subcontractor’s employees’ exposure to the condition.”  The citation was vacated.

For employers this outcome raises a clear example of where, if issued an OSHA citation, such as under OSHA’s multi-employer citation policy, it is important to review the citation from the big picture, including the law, regulations, and all case law precedent that might impact the citation on the particular employer.  The jurisdiction in which the case arises matters.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Team.