Cathodic protection supplier Corrpro Companies Inc. did not adequately protect a new field employee who fell through a hole left by a third-party painting contractor, a federal Administrative Law Judge has ruled.
The Corrpro employee fractured his spine in the 12-foot fall onto the concrete base of a tank on his first day in the field.
In a split decision, Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission ALJ Sharon D. Calhoun found that Houston-based Corrpro had inspected the worksite appropriately but had not enforced adequate fall protection.
|Corrpro is a longtime global provider of cathodic protection systems and engineering services to the pipeline, refinery, storage tanks, wastewater, marine and other industrial markets.|
All three crew members at the site were wearing fall protection, but none was tied off, the evidence showed.
As a result, an office worker was seriously injured, the judge concluded after reviewing Corrpro’s appeal of two citations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The Commission is an independent agency that reviews OSHA decisions.
Corrpro did not respond Monday (Aug. 6) to a request for comment.
The case involved an accident May 10, 2011, at the Miami County Water Treatment Plant in Dayton, OH. A three-person crew—the project foreman, field supervisor and a customer service specialist—from Corrpro was on site to install a cathodic protection system.
It was the customer agent’s first day in the field. A clerical worker, he had come to the site to expand his skills and learn more about installations, commission documents said.
Before going out in the field, the worker completed new hire orientation safety training and a 30- to 60-minute online fall protection training program.
That morning, commission documents show, the project foreman walked the site while the crew waited at the van, then discussed the work with the crew.
Painters Leave Hole
In that discussion, the foreman went over the fall arrest systems, harnesses, and “all the safety PPE that were going to be used on the job site,” documents said.
He also warned the crew that a painting contractor (which was not identified in agency documents) had left a hatch off an area of the clarifier tank where the Corrpro crew would be working, creating a 2-by-2-foot hole that still remained open.
Before work began, the foreman fitted the new worker with “personal protective equipment, including a safety harness, hard hat, safety glasses, shock absorbing lanyards and two four-foot lanyards and made sure they were correctly attached,” documents said. Once at the site, however, the worker did not tie off.
The worker’s task that morning was to cut and lower ropes for the installation. At one point, he came near the hole, and the foreman shouted a warning.
Nevertheless, the employee accidentally stepped into the open hatch about 10:20 a.m., falling about 12 feet to the concrete bottom of the tank and fracturing his lower back.
After an inspection, OSHA proposed $12,000 in fines and cited Corrpro for two serious violations: failure to have a competent person inspect and ensure that covers were maintained and failure to protect employees from falling through holes more than six feet.
Calhoun’s decision dismissed the first citation and upheld the second one.
In the first count, OSHA argued that the foreman had had a duty to develop “a clear plan to prevent employee exposure to the hazard of the unguarded hole.”
However, Corrpro contended—and the judge agreed—that the foreman satisfied his obligation to conduct “frequent and regular” inspections by walking the site alone, then briefing the crew, then walking the site again with the crew, pointing out the hole along the way.
The foreman was a seven-year employee who was “knowledgeable, experienced and qualified to conduct safety inspections,” the judge concluded.
On the other hand, the judge held the company responsible for leaving the hole unguarded. OSHA standards require that employers cover holes more than six feet above lower levels.
Corrpro contended that it did not have the authority to close the hatch that the painters had opened. The company also said that 10-foot I-beams around the perimeter of the work area had offered sufficient protection.
The judge disagreed, noting that the beams had been erected to support the catwalk, not guard the hole.
“It is not credible that they were intended to guard the hole as Corrpro contends,” she wrote. Testimony by the foreman and supervisor that the I-beams served as a barrier “appeared coached and designed to benefit Corrpro.”
Indeed, she wrote, had the I-beams been sufficient protection, the foreman would not have had to shout the additional warning about the hole once inside the tank.
Furthermore, the employee “did not have to step over the cross bracing when he fell,” the judge wrote. “He just turned around, and there was nothing obstructing his way.”
The judge also noted that although all three of the crew members were wearing fall protection at the time, none was tied off.
“There is no personal fall protection system if employees are not tied off, despite wearing the appropriate equipment,” the decision said.
The judge also denied Corrpro’s claim of employee misconduct, which might have mitigated its responsibility. The decision said that Corrpro had a fall protection work rule but did not adequately communicate or implement it in this case.
“Corrpro seems to argue that the purported direction from [the foreman] to tie off if near the hole is a work rule,” the judge wrote. “The undersigned finds that this falls short of what is required for a work rule….
“The expectation that [the customer agent] would know where to tie off is unreasonable. [The agent] was a novice on the jobsite, and the guidance he received was inadequate.”
Calhoun did halve the original $7,000 fine for the citation to $3,500, reflecting the company’s “good faith” during the investigation.