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The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) is intended to provide workers with safe and healthy working conditions. Every workplace covered by the OSH Act is subject to inspection by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) compliance officers. When inspectors find OSHA safety violations, OSHA may issue citations and penalties, including imprisonment in some cases.

OSHA fines typically don’t create civil liability for personal injuries or wrongful death. However, if an injured worker dies on the job, their dependents may be eligible for death benefits. And if a third party causes a workplace accident, they could potentially be sued civilly.

OSHA Inspections

The OSH Act covers most private sector employers and their employees. It empowers OSHA to set and enforce workplace health and safety standards. OSHA standards apply to blue collar and white collar employers, although white collar work environments are usually free of hazards the agency targets.

In 2022, OSHA conducted around 32,000 inspections. More than half of these inspections were in response to employee complaints, referrals, and injuries and fatalities. The rest were focused on industries and operations where known hazards exist.

OSHA’s second-highest inspection priority is for employer-reported injuries and deaths. Employers are required to notify OSHA when an employee is killed on the job or suffers a work-related hospitalization. Fatalities must be reported within 8 hours, and hospitalizations within 24 hours. The agency performs an investigation anytime an accident results in a fatality or the hospitalization of three or more employees.

OSHA Fines and Penalties

OSHA safety violations can lead to a range of civil and criminal penalties for employers, depending on the severity of the violation.

  • Serious and other-than-serious violations: $1,116 – $15,625 per violation.
  • Willful or repeated violations: $11,162 – $156,259 per violation.
  • Failure to post OHSA required notices: $15,625 per violation.
  • Failure to abate a previously cited violation: $15,625 per day, up to 30 days max.

In addition, the OSH Act allows OSHA to bring criminal charges against an employer for willful violations that cause an employee’s death, with a fine of up to $10,000, imprisonment of up to 6 months, or both. A repeat violation can double these penalties.

OSHA can work with state prosecutors as well to have criminal charges, including manslaughter, filed against an employer due to a worksite fatality. Federal prosecutors also can—and have appeared increasingly willing to—charge employers for OSH criminal acts and other offenses, including environmental crimes.

Christopher McDonald and Graham Law’s Supreme Court Case

A list of OSHA’s most frequently cited violations in fiscal year 2022 shows that construction is one of the most dangerous occupations, with 4 out of the top 10 violations occurring in the construction industry.

Among construction jobs, trenching and excavation work is particularly hazardous. OSHA reported 39 trench deaths in 2022, more than twice the number from 2021. Two of these deaths were in Ohio. From 2011 – 2018, 166 workers were fatally injured in trench cave-ins.

Christopher McDonald was one of the unlucky workers who died in a trench collapse accident. McDonald was working in a trench in Marysville, Ohio in 2019 when, according to an OSHA incident report, it “collapsed on top of him and asphyxiated him.”

His employer, J&J Schlaegel, was fined for three construction-related OSHA safety violations over the deadly incident. The OSHA standards cited were for:

J&J Schlaegel received two fines of $7,956 and one fine of $15,930. The latter was for a repeat trench safety violation.

McDonald’s death set off a long legal battle by his fiancé, Amanda Carpenter, to win workers’ compensation death benefits. Initially denied benefits, Carpenter eventually won a precedent-setting Supreme Court decision that will force the Ohio Industrial Commission to revisit her claim.

Ohio Law Generally Prohibits Employer Injury and Death Lawsuits

Carpenter could end up receiving workers’ compensation benefits in connection with McDonald’s death due to the Supreme Court’s interpretation of who may qualify as a family member under workers’ compensation law. But she probably can’t sue his employer for damages.

Another court decision involving a worker killed in a trench collapse shows how, even when an employer is cited by OSHA, they usually can’t be held liable for wrongful death or personal injury.

After an Ohio worker died in a Hillsboro trench collapse, his family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against his employer. Even though the employer was cited for multiple safety violations, including a willful violation involving trench protection systems, the case was dismissed because employers that pay workers’ compensation benefits are in most cases immune from workplace accident lawsuits.

The family appealed the decision, but the appeals’ court sided with the employer, writing in its decision that, “Absent a deliberate intent to injure another, an employer is not liable for a claim alleging an employer intentional tort, and the injured employee’s exclusive remedy is within the workers’ compensation system.”

Legal Help for Injured Ohio Workers and Their Loved Ones

Workplace injuries can raise legal issues that touch on criminal, civil, and workers’ compensation law. These issues should be discussed promptly with an attorney to ensure that all legal rights and options are preserved. While you generally can’t sue an employer for injury or death, a negligent third party, such as a subcontractor, could be held legally responsible.

The attorneys at Graham Law have deep roots in Southeast Ohio and are proud to represent local workers. To discuss a workplace accident, please get in touch for a free consultation.

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