By Robert G. Chadwick, Jr., Partner, Freeman Mathis & Gary, LLP..
In February 2016, Bergelectric Corporation (“Bergelectric”) was installing solar panels on the roof of a hangar at the Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego, California. The roof of the hangar was low-sloped and six feet or more above a lower level. Bergelectric employees were using warning lines and a safety monitor as prescribed by 29 C.F.R. § 1926.501(b)(10) of OSHA’s fall protection standard, which applies to employees performing roofing work on low-sloped roofs.
On February 24-25, 2016, OSHA conducted an inspection of the worksite. Based on the inspection, the agency issued a citation alleging a violation of 29 C.F.R. § 1926.501(b)(1) of OSHA’s fall protection standard, which requires employees working near the unprotected sides and edges of certain roofs to be protected by guardrail systems, safety net systems or personal fall arrest systems (“PFAS”).
Bergelectric contested the citation. Although it did not dispute the absence of guardrail systems, safety net systems or PFAS, the company alleged its worked was governed by the safety standard for roofing work on low-sloped roofs, rather than the stricter standard applicable to unprotected sides and edges. The Occupational Safety & Health Review Commission nevertheless upheld the citation, and Bergelectric filed a Petition for Review with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In a June 6, 2019 Per Curiam Opinion, the Ninth Circuit denied Bergelectric’s Petition for Review. In doing so, the court noted that the installation of solar panels did not fall within the definition of “roofing work” in 29 C.F.R. § 1926.500(b). That regulation defines “roofing work” as “the hoisting, storage, application, and removal of roofing materials and equipment, including related insulation, sheet metal, and vapor barrier work, but not including the construction of the roof deck.” The Court determined that the solar panels had “no connection to roofing and were, instead, simply the installation of a system that often happens to sit atop a roof.”
Without question, OSHA standards are voluminous and complex. As the experience of Bergelectric demonstrates, an employer nevertheless interprets these standards at its own peril. Even a good faith effort to comply with safety standards can, if proved erroneous, result in an OSHA citation.
To minimize the risk of a citation, it is thus prudent for employers to evaluate whether their work may be subject to stricter OSHA standards than called for by current safety protocols. If necessary, legal counsel should be consulted. Such a review may avoid learning the hard way, as did Bergelectric, that the employer should have been following a stricter OSHA standard. Even if it is determined that the current safety protocols are correct, such an effort would help bolster the defense of an erroneously issued citation (which OSHA has been known to do) and show the commitment of the employer to compliance with OSHA directives.
Robert G. Chadwick, Jr. frequently speaks to non-profit organizations regarding occupational safety and health issues. To contact him for a speaking engagement, please e-mail him at email@example.com.