Court Rejects Contractor Liability for Subcontractors on Multi-Employer Work Sites

The Utah Supreme Court has issued a ruling stating that a federal law making general contractors at multi-employer work sites responsible to correct unsafe work conditions that could cause injury to subcontractor employees runs contrary to state law.
The immediate impact on those seeking to file a Greensboro workers’ compensation claim is probably minimal, as it is an out-of-state ruling and doesn’t directly pertain to benefits. However, decisions by state supreme courts tend to be given a lot of weight when courts in other jurisdictions face similar issues. Plus, any action that erodes worker safety is likely to result in more workers’ compensation claims overall.

By holding both subcontractors and general contractors on job sites responsible to ensure employee protection, the multi-employer work site doctrine, per Occupational Safety & Health Administration policy CPL 02-00-124, seeks to bolster protection for all workers. A ruling like this serves to undercut that purpose.

Here’s what the law says:

At any multi-employer work site, both construction and non-construction, citations for work hazards will be issued to both the employer whose workers are exposed to those hazards (the exposing employer), as well as to the employer who creates the hazard (the creating employer), the employer who had the authority to ensure the hazardous condition is corrected (the controlling employer) and the employer who is responsible for actually correcting the hazard (the correcting employer).

A citation from OSHA, depending on the severity, could cost several thousand dollars and may even potentially result in a shut down of a work site until the hazards are mitigated.

Of course, many employers have railed against this law, but it has thus far withstood numerous challenges. For example, in late 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected an appeal from the defendant in Summit Contractors, Inc. v. USDL and OSHA, challenging the law. In a prior challenge from the same company, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals also rejected the company’s claim.

So then comes the case of Hughes Gen. Contractors, Inc. v. Utah Labor Comm’n, reviewed by the Utah Supreme Court.

Essentially, the lawsuit was filed by a general contractor after it received numerous citations and fines for safety violations while overseeing a construction renovation project at a high school. Specifically, inspectors with OSHA found that masonry workers were placed at risk because of scaffolding hazards. Although those workers did not work directly for the general contractor, OSHA cited them under the multi-employer work site doctrine. The general contractor contested the citation on the grounds that the state’s OSHA division had erroneously applied or interpreted the law.

When the case reached the state supreme court, the justices conceded that the federal courts have consistently upheld the law. However, the justices pointed out that federal law differed from Utah state law, which pins responsibility for safety solely on the shoulders of the direct employer.

Despite this ruling, OSHA has not stopped going after companies in other jurisdictions for violation of the law. According to the National Law Review, the agency announced plans to use the statute to crack down on safety violations within the telecommunications industry, which has seen an uptick in work-related fall injuries and deaths recently. Inspectors will be targeting all companies involved in telecommunication tower construction, maintenance, leasing and operation.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Hughes Gen. Contractors, Inc. v. Utah Labor Comm’n, Jan. 31, 2014, Utah Suprem Court

More Blog Entries
Employer Pressure May Unduly Impact Rights After Injury, Jan. 26, 2014, Greensboro Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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