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OSHA is Lurking

March 16, 2006

OSHA is Lurking

Aquatek Systems, Inc. is a small company that provides waterproofing services. On January 7, 2003, an OSHA investigator observed Aquatek's employees working in an apartment complex on balconies without railings. Aquatek was cited by OSHA for failing to provides its employees with fall protection, as required by the law, and was assessed a penalty of $1,500. The OSHA citation was eventually vacated because Aquatek was able to prove that it had a work rule requiring fall protection for employees working at heights on unguarded surfaces, that it had adequately communicated and enforced the rule, and that it had reprimanded the foreman who ordered the employees to work on the unguarded balconies. ? However, the administrative process was likely far more costly, in both time and money, than the relatively low $1500 penalty.? While in this case a service company was cited rather than the apartment owner or management company, the decision clearly shows that OSHA is lurking, and that it could be coming to visit you.

In February 1998, an employee in Pasadena, California fell from the roof of an apartment building while he and two other employees were working on a boiler. The employee was killed and the owner of the apartment complex was cited for 20 separate regulatory violations and assessed a penalty in excess of $13,000.? Although the owner eventually settled the administrative claim, accepting 15 violations and a penalty in excess of $8,000, the OSHA citation, which squarely placed the blame on the employer, would have made a worker's compensation action or wrongful death lawsuit difficult to defends.

These situations serve as a reminder that the multi-housing industry is not exempt from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act ("OSHA"). According to inspection information available on OSHA's website, fully 60% of the OSHA inspections in the multi-housing industry between March 1996 and March 2006 occurred as a result of employee complaints. Further, 75% of the inspections conducted during that same time period resulted in citations being issued to the apartment owner or management company.

OSHA and its regulations require employers to provide employees with a safe and healthy working environment. Whether or not OSHA comes to call, complying with OSHA makes good business sense. According to Liberty Mutual's 2005 Workplace Safety Index findings, U.S. employers spend almost $1 billion each week on medical care and lost wages for injured workers.? The Safety Index reports that the ten leading causes of workplace injuries are overexertion, falls on the same level, bodily reaction (injuries from bending, climbing, slipping or tripping without falling), falls to a lower level, being struck by an object, repetitive motion, highway incident, striking against an object (i.e., a worker walking into a doorframe), being caught or compressed by equipment, and assaults and violent acts. Most of these injuries can, and do, occur in the multi-housing workplace.

While OSHA investigations and citations are less frequent in multi-housing than other industries, hazards to employees can exist and employees can be seriously injured. Employers should implement a safety and health program which includes, in addition to actions for specific workplace conditions, the following:

  • Familiarize yourself with (both the Occupational Safety and Health Act and its regulations, including recordkeeping regulations where appropriate)
  • Assess the workplace for hazards (including hazardous chemicals, hazardous equipment, work practices, etc.)
  • Issue policies that employees must follow when they are working in situations that may involve a hazard
  • Provide training and safety equipment where required or appropriate
  • Ensure that employees comply with safety policies and procedures
  • Conduct periodic safety inspections and address any new hazards introduced the workplace.