OSHA Pursues Tough Policy On ‘Willful’ Report Violations, Cites Maximum Penalty In TX Case

OSHA delivered a clear message to employers Wednesday (July 22) that it will aggressively enforce new worker hospitalization reporting rules by determining if employers willfully flouted the law and potentially hitting them with egregious citations, holding up a recent Texas case charging that a company deliberately dodged telling OSHA about a serious medical incident for several days, leading to the maximum proposed fine.

Agency officials blasted the safety record of Texas’ construction industry and paired the hospital reporting case — which involved citations over a worker allegedly not being provided proper safety equipment and falling 12 feet and suffering severe injury — with a separate probe into the serious injury of a Texas worker in a trench collapse. That resulted in willful citations over the alleged trench hazard. Both cases stemmed from serious workplace accidents in the Houston area.

OSHA also used one of the cases to highlight persistent concerns about temporary worker safety, claiming that the laborer provider for the site failed to conduct regular job site inspections. All told the cases amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars in proposed federal fines.

Compliance officers alleged in the hospitalization reporting probe that Cotton Commercial USA Inc. of Katy, TX, waited three days to report the injury of a temporary worker. The employee, despite asking for a safety harness, did not have fall protection on a roof and later fell 12 feet through the roof, resulting in his hospitalization with fractured arms and severe contusions, officials said. OSHA requires employers to report such incidents within 24 hours under a new reporting rule which also covers amputations and losses of an eye.

OSHA fined Cotton Commercial $362,500 for seven safety violations, including one willful and four willful egregious. Alleged violations on top of the incident reporting include failing to provide fall protection for four workers and not training employees in the use of fall protection and ladders. A Cotton Commercial executive could not be reached for comment on OSHA’s allegations Wednesday.

“Falls kill workers, but they are preventable,” OSHA chief David Michaels said in a statement. “Cotton Commercial denied its workers the safety equipment they are required to provide, and the company intentionally waited several days to report the incident and misled OSHA’s inspectors.”

The agency also issued a serious citation to the laborer provider, Gardia Construction, for allegedly failing to inspect the work site for fall hazards, with a proposed penalty of $4,900. OSHA said Gardia does not carry workers’ compensation insurance, exacerbating the plight of any injured workers.

Gardia’s phone number in Greta, LA, was busy and an official could not be reached.

OSHA asserted that staffing agencies and host employers are jointly responsible for maintaining a safe work environment for temporary workers. That includes ensuring that OSHA’s training, hazard communications and record-keeping requirements are fulfilled, and for construction workers, the responsibility includes ensuring that frequent and regular inspections of work sites are conducted, OSHA maintained.

“Cotton Commercial was well aware of how to prevent safety hazard and, in fact, on the following day Cotton made sure all workers were provided with the required safety equipment,” OSHA Regional Administrator John Hermanson said. “It shouldn’t have to take a serious injury for a company to comply with the law.”

Michaels told reporters in a conference call Wednesday that the Cotton Commercial citation demonstrates OSHA’s determination to fully enforce the new hospitalization reporting requirements. The agency just issued a “willful” citation under the new reporting requirements to another employer and continues to investigate compliance with the rule in other incidents, he said.

OSHA simultaneously widely publicized a trench collapse case in the Houston area and suggested it and the other case seemed symptomatic of a larger safety culture problem in the Texas construction sector. More construction workers die in Texas than in any other state, he said, though fortunately in the immediately cited cases they survived.

OSHA’s citations against Hassell Construction Co. Inc., with nearly $424,000 in proposed fines, resulted from an incident in which OSHA says a worker was buried in an 8-foot trench below ground. Co-workers came to his rescue, digging him out with their bare hands, and moments after they pulled the injured man to safety, the unprotected trench collapsed again, OSHA said. His injuries were serious and led to hospitalization.

OSHA claims the man’s Houston-area employer, Hassell Construction, knew the Richmond, TX, excavation site was dangerous, but failed to protect workers. The agency cited Hassell Construction for 16 safety violations, including six egregious willful violations for failing to protect workers inside an excavation from a cave-in.

Further OSHA has placed the company in its Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which concentrates resources on inspecting employers that OSHA believes have demonstrated indifference towards creating a safe and healthy workplace by committing willful or repeated violations, and/or failing to abate known hazards. The program mandates follow-up inspections to ensure compliance with the law.

“For more than 2,500 years, man has known how to prevent deadly trench collapses. It is absolutely unacceptable that employers continue to endanger the lives of workers in trenches,” Michaels said. “An employer is responsible for providing a workplace safe from hazards. Hassell Construction failed to do that in this case.”

An official with Hassell Construction told Inside OSHA Online Wednesday that company will be going to informal conference with OSHA but would not yet talk about the citations. — Christopher Cole (ccole@iwpnews.com)