By James L. CurtisAdam R. Young, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis:  We had blogged previously that OSHA appealed an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) ruling that severely limited OSHA’s Multi-Employer Worksite Doctrine and citation of a “controlling employer” general contractor. Acosta v. Hensel Phelps Constr. Co., No. 17-60543 (5th Cir. August 4, 2017).  The Fifth Circuit has now reversed the ALJ, and upheld OSHA’s Multi-Employer Worksite Doctrine.

In dramatic language, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (governing federal law in Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana) announced, that “thirty-seven years ago, this court, in a tort case, announced that ‘OSHA regulations protect only an employer’s own employees’.”  Melerine v. Avondale Shipyards, Inc., 659 F.2d 706, 711 (5th Cir. 1981).  That decision had endured despite the seismic shift brought about by Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984), and of broader employer liability under the Act.  Acosta v Hensel Phelps Construction, No 17-60543 (5th Cir November 26, 2018).  OSHA’s Multi-Employer Worksite Doctrine enables the Agency to cite employers who are “controlling,” “exposing,” “creating,” or “correcting” safety hazards.  OSHA regularly cites general contractors as “controlling” employers with regard to hazards only faced by subcontractor employees.

In the instant appeal, the Court was asked whether OSHA has the authority, under either the Occupational Safety and Health Act, 29 U.S.C. § 651 et seq. (the Act), or regulations, “to issue a citation to a general contractor at a multi-employer construction worksite who controls a hazardous condition at that worksite, even if the condition affects another employer’s employees.”  The Court concluded that OSHA does indeed have that authority under the Act.

Factually, an OSHA compliance officer conducted an inspection of the site and discovered three sub-contractor employees working at the base of an unprotected wall of evacuated soil.  The contractor’s and the subcontractor’s superintendents were present at the wall, with full views of the subcontractor’s employees working near the wall.  OSHA cited both contractor and the subcontractor for willfully violating 29 C.F.R. § 1926.652(a)(1) for allegedly “exposing employees to a cave-in hazard from an unprotected excavation at a construction site.”

The ALJ determined that the contractor met the requirements to be considered a “controlling employer” who had a duty under 29 U.S.C. § 651 et seq., to “act reasonably to prevent or detect and abate violations at the worksite even when the affected employees are those of another employer.”  However, because the citation arose within the jurisdiction of the Fifth Circuit, the ALJ found that “Fifth Circuit precedent foreclosed the citation” against the general contractor.  The ALJ relied on Melerine, Inc., 659 F.2d at 711, finding that “an employer at a worksite within the Fifth Circuit cannot be held in violation of the Act when the employees exposed to the hazard were employees of a different employer.”

Rather than follow Commission precedent and uphold the citation, the ALJ found 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, 2000 WL 294514 (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,”  and vacated the citation.

The Court here concluded that “an agency’s interpretation of its governing statute in an administrative adjudication ‘is as much an exercise of delegated lawmaking powers as is the Secretary’s promulgation of a workplace health and safety standard… The Multi-Employer Worksite Doctrine is an agency document that provides guidance to OSHA inspectors as to when it may be appropriate to cite a particular employer.”  The Secretary did not derive any authority from the Policy in issuing the citation to Hensel Phelps; “he relied on the statute itself and engaged in adjudication on the basis of that statutory authority.”  The Court found that the Secretary’s construction of the statute as granting authority to issue citations to controlling employers is a “reasonably defensible” one.

Accordingly, OSHA’s Multi-Employer Worksite Doctrine is now fully enforceable in the Fifth Circuit.

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) or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

By James L. Curtis, Brent I. Clark, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: As expected, OSHA has appealed an ALJ ruling that severely limits OSHA’s “controlling employer” enforcement policy. Acosta v. Hensel Phelps Constr. Co., No. 17-60543 (5th Cir. 8/4/17).

This case involves an unprotected excavation at a construction site that both parties agreed was in in violation of OSHA’s trenching standards.  The Respondent was the general contractor on the construction project with overall control and responsibility for the worksite.  The Respondent also had management employees on site who were present at the excavation who “could have easily” prevented the subcontractor’s employees from working in the unprotected excavation but did not do so.  However, the Respondent did not have any of its own employees who were exposed to the hazardous excavation.

OSHA cited Respondent as a “controlling employer” under OSHA’s multi-employer policy and longstanding Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission precedent that 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).

Nonetheless, while the Commission has upheld “controlling employer” citations based on exposure to another employer’s employees, 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 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).  Accordingly, rather than follow Commission precedent and uphold the citation, the ALJ found 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,”  and vacated the citation.

OSHA is appealing the ALJ’s decision to the 5th Circuit hoping that the 5th Circuit will reverse its 1981 holding in Melerine v. Avondale Shipyards, Inc.   This case represents a serious threat to OSHA’s multi-employer policy.  If upheld by the 5th Circuit, OSHA’s “controlling employer” policy may be in jeopardy. We will keep our readers apprised as this case develops.

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.

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.