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Utah employers are responsible only for the workplace safety of their own employees, not of their subcontractors, the state Supreme Court ruled Jan. 31, 2014.
The court rejected the so-called multiemployer worksite doctrine used by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which holds a general contractor accountable for the safety of all employees on a worksite, including subcontractors. The court asserted that the federal doctrine is incompatible with the governing Utah Occupational Safety and Health Act.
“The multiemployer construct is a misnomer,” the court said. “Typically, a general contractor is not an employer vis-à-vis the workers of its subcontractors. And typically, there is only one employer as to any one group of workers.”
The case arose out of a Hughes General Contractors construction project that involved more than 100 subcontractors, including B.A. Robinson, which performed masonry work. During the project, Hughes was cited by the Utah Occupational Safety and Health Division for several workplace safety violations, including the improper use and erection of scaffolding in connection with masonry work done by B.A. Robinson employees.
The inspecting officer, invoking the multiemployer worksite doctrine, determined that Hughes was responsible for the safety of B.A. Robinson’s employees and cited the contractor for failing to inspect and take corrective action. Specifically, the officer concluded that Hughes was responsible as a controlling employer and had general supervisory authority over the worksite.
In contesting the citation, Hughes challenged the legal viability of the doctrine. The citation, however, was upheld by an administrative law judge, whose decision was affirmed on appeal to the state labor commission’s appeals board.
The contractor sought review in the Utah Court of Appeals, which then certified the case to the state Supreme Court.
The state Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously to vacate the citation against Hughes, writing: “Our Utah regulations have not incorporated the federal provision to which the federal courts have deferred in upholding the multiemployer worksite doctrine. And in any event our law affords no deference to federal regulations on questions of law.”
Further, the court examined the legality of the doctrine under first impression and found that it is not viable under state law. Utah regulations clearly place occupational safety responsibility with the employer, as defined by a traditional employment relationship, the court explained.
“Hughes was not an ‘employer’ in connection with the work done by B.A. Robinson’s workers,” the court said. “It had none of the rights of control identified—as to hiring and firing, method of payment, etc. Instead it had only general supervisory authority over the worksite. That did not render it an employer subject to sanctions for failure to comply with [Utah occupational safety laws].”
The court explained that the question in the case was a matter of statutory interpretation and not an endeavor to “pick sides in the policy debate.”
“It may well be, as the Labor Commission advocates, that a broad multiemployer duty to assure compliance with [state safety standards] would enhance workplace safety in Utah … but the statute also obviously balances concerns for fairness to employers,” the court said.
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Follow him @SHRMRoy
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