What was the legal issue in this case?
This case was a review of citations for violations of several OSHA standards mandated for construction contractors that R. Williams Construction (Williams or the Company) had been cited for. The court was asked to review the citations and decide if they should be upheld. The legal issue in the case was whether the Company had actually violated OSHA safety standards.
What did the employer do or fail to do that violated the OSH Act?
Williams was cited for a total of five violations that were linked to the collapse of a trench that the company had excavated for a new sewer line. Two workers were caught in the trench collapse. One worker was rescued with serious injuries, while the other was killed in the collapse (Serrano, 2003).
One of the citations was an alleged willful violation, which was reduced to a serious violation during the original hearing conducted by an OSHRC administrative law judge (ALJ). “The first citation charged the Company with failing to instruct its employees in the recognition and avoidance of unsafe conditions and in the regulations applicable to their work environment.” (Fletcher, 2006, para. 5)
The ALJ found that Williams provided no training in the hazards of trenching for at least two of the employees that had been working in the trench. “Joseph Goforth, an employee who started working for Williams four days before the trench collapse, testified that he occasionally worked in the trench and received no training when he started work.” (Fletcher, 2006, para. 9) Goforth also stated that there had been no discussion around rules and he had not been shown a safety manual. Palomar, the employee who survived the trench’s collapse, testified that he had not been given any training in trench safety in the entire nine month period that he had worked for Williams (Fletcher, 2006).
There was testimony given by a supervisor of the work site, who was supposed to be responsible for employee safety, that he had never made himself familiar with the safety manual provided to him by the Company. Due to this testimony, the ALJ also found that there were no Williams’ supervisor familiarity with OSHA regulations (Walsh, 2010, p. 483).
The second citation that the Company was charged with entailed how far an employee had to travel to reach a safe place to exit the trench. The Company was in violation of regulation 29 C.F.R. § 1926.651(c)(2) “…by providing only one safe means of egress at the east end of the 45-foot trench.” (Fletcher, 2006, para. 7) The company failed to have additional areas of exit that allowed workers to have to travel no more than 25 feet in order to leave the trench. “A violation is established so long as employees have access to a dangerous area more than 25 feet from a means of egress.” (Fletcher, 2006, para. 8)
The third citation was for the violation of an OSHA regulation requiring for the construction company to ensure that a knowledgeable individual with detailed training in soil analysis, which could also recognize safety concerns during daily inspections of the trench, was present at the work site.
Williams failed to have a supervisor that was aware of the basic principles to ensuring a safe work site. There was no one at the work site that was “…capable…of identifying and correcting existing and predictable hazards in their surroundings.” (Walsh, 2010, p. 483) Testimony by John (JP) Williams, the previously mentioned supervisor, confirmed that the Company had failed to have the required OSHA trained “competent person” due to his only training being what he had gotten while on the job. “He was unfamiliar with OSHA sloping and trenching requirements and did not conduct any physical tests on the soil in the trench.” (Walsh, 2010, p. 483)
The fourth violation of OSHA regulations was cited due to the Company’s failure to protect its employees from cave-ins. The walls of the trench were not properly sloped or