Court: Ignorance of OSHA Rules is Not a Valid Defense

A federal appeals court has ruled that citations issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are valid even if the offender claims ignorance of the regulations. The case involved a workplace fatality from a fall through a skylight.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld a $49,000 OSHA penalty against Georgia-based Martin Mechanical Contractors following a November 2015 incident in Athens, GA, in which 39-year-old HVAC installer Timothy O’Neal Gearing fell through the opening for an uninstalled skylight to a concrete floor 15 feet below. He was hospitalized and later died of his injuries.

According to court documents, the skylights in the roof were about 10-feet long, unguarded and only covered with thin plastic sheeting. The employees did not wear fall-arrest systems, even though Martin Mechanical’s foreman had them in his truck at the jobsite.

OSHA cited Martin Mechanical for failing to protect its employees from falls and issued the $49,000 penalty for a willful violation that showed a reckless disregard for employee safety. The company appealed the decision, but an administrative law judge affirmed it, rejecting Martin Mechanical’s argument that the foreman’s ignorance of the regulations demonstrated that it wasn’t a willful violation. After the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC) declined to review the administrative law judge’s decision, Martin Mechanical took the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

The appeals court rejected Martin Mechanical’s argument, saying the company shouldn’t be allowed “to use its ineffective training as a defense against OSHA’s most serious charge.”

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