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What Every C-Level Executive Should Know About OSHA, Fall Protection, and Willful Violations

May 12, 2014 6:59:51 AM

Although C-Level managers rely heavily on Environmental, Health, and Safety managers to keep employees safe, there are specific provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act* that demand their personal attention.  Board room executives are not expected to personally execute inspections to identify fall hazards or document actions taken to remediate unsafe working conditions, but they are responsible for supervising the completion of these tasks.  Failure to do so may result in what OSHA terms, a “willful violation”.  What’s more, C-Level managers may be found personally and criminally liable for willful OSHA violations. So, how does OSHA define a willful violation and what are the penalties for these citations?  OSHA defines willful violations in the following manner:

  • “…A violation that the employer knowingly commits or commits with plain indifference to the law. The employer either knows that what he or she is doing constitutes a violation, or is aware that a hazardous condition existed and made no reasonable effort to eliminate it.”

The severity of the penalties for willful OSHA violations vary case-by-case, but they are significant:

  • “Penalties of up to $70,000 may be proposed for each willful violation, with a minimum penalty of $5,000 for each violation.”
  •  “If an employer is convicted of a willful violation of a standard that has resulted in the death of an employee, the offense is punishable by a court-imposed fine or by imprisonment for up to six months, or both. A fine of up to $250,000 for an individual, or $500,000 for a corporation, may be imposed for a criminal conviction.”

While OSHA standards can seem confusing, the differences between the fall protection standards found in Sections 1910 (General Industry) and 1926 (Construction) are case in point – but the penalties associated with willful violations are far from ambiguous.  CEO’s and company presidents who ignore known workplace fall hazards can face criminal prosecution, and if convicted, prison.  C-Level managers who think potential prison sentences for willful violations are simply OSHA scare tactics to encourage compliance, should think again.

The recent legal difficulties facing Martin Romano*, President of MR Asphalt Inc., illustrate the serious nature of willful violations.  In September 2012, one of Romano’s employees struck his head and died after falling 15 feet from the top of an oil tank.  The failure to provide fall protection, combined with the company’s failure to report the fatality within the required 8-hour window, led to a willful violation citation.  Romano’s case is being tried in a criminal court where he faces a $10,000 fine and a 6-month prison term, if convicted.  Moreover, MR Asphalt Inc. faces additional fines of $500,000.

Company owners remediate workplace fall hazards for a variety of reasons.  For some, employees are seen as family members, and as such, dangerous working conditions are immediately and aggressively addressed because it is the right thing to do.  Other business owners are simply motivated to address safety to avoid OSHA citations.  Either way, it is important to partner with a qualified fall protection company because unsafe working conditions are not always easily identifiable to the untrained eye.  Regardless of your company’s culture of safety, remember this simple point:  CEO’s, board members, and directors have a legal obligation to remediate known workplace fall hazards.  Business owners with personal knowledge of violations failing to make reasonable efforts to eliminate hazardous working conditions are subject to criminal prosecution.

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