A federal appeals court has sharply limited the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s power to cite employers for record-keeping violations.
|The court said the case against Volks Constructors had tied a “straightforward issue into a Gordian knot.”|
Overturning longstanding OSHA precedent and a decision by an independent agency, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has ruled that companies may be held liable for reporting violations for only six months—not five years, as the agency had ruled in one case.
Multiple years-old citations against a Louisiana contractor “are untimely and should be vacated,” the court ruled in throwing out the six-year-old case against Volks Constructors.
OSHA fined Volks $13,300 for 67 record-keeping violations in November 2006, alleging that the company failed to log a number of injuries and illnesses within seven days as required. However, the citations dated to incidents that occurred as early as Jan. 11, 2002—more than four years earlier.
Volks, a heavy industrial contractor based in Prairieville, LA, appealed to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, an independent agency that reviews OSHA decisions. After a rare hearing, the commission upheld the citations in a 2-1 vote. Volks then appealed the decision in court.
In its appeal, the company noted that the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which established OSHA, limits citations to violations incurred within the previous six months.
The law also requires employers to retain their illness and injury logs for five years, and destruction or loss of those records still remains a violation within the five-year limit. However, Volks was cited for improperly recorded injuries and other violations, not for failure to save the records.
The government argued that all the violations for which Volks was cited were “continuing violations” and that “such violations continue every day that an unmet record-keeping obligation remains unsatisfied.”
Both the dissenting commission judge and the court called that line of reasoning an attempt to “tie this straightforward issue into a Gordian knot.”
‘Clear Congressional Intent’
Rather, the court said, the six-month limit reflects a “quite clear congressional intent that requires none of the strained inferences [the Secretary of Labor] urges upon us.”
The ruling added: “We do not believe Congress expressly established a statute of limitations only to implicitly encourage the Secretary to ignore it.”
“The [OSH] Act clearly renders the citations untimely, and the secretary’s argument to the contrary relies on an interpretation that is neither natural nor consistent with our precedents.”