OSHA’s Lockout/Tagout standard applies to all pieces of equipment that “function together as one system” when servicing or maintenance is performed on any part of that system. Secretary of Labor v. Action Electric Co., No. 16-15792, 2017 WL 2982977 (11th Cir. Jul. 13, 2017). The Lockout/Tagout (“LOTO”) standard is designed to protect workers performing maintenance on machines from releases of stored energy in the machines or unexpected activation of the machines.
In Action Electric, an apprentice employee was preparing to perform maintenance on fans that were part of a cooling bed system in a steel mill. Numerous pieces of equipment were part of that system. The fans were used to cool steel. Separately, certain counterweights would raise and lower the cooling bed. The fans and other equipment were in a 325 foot by 100 foot basement below the cooling bed.
The steel mill had a comprehensive set of policies requiring lockout/tagout of all the cooling bed’s equipment prior to any maintenance. Nevertheless, an Action leadman took his apprentice into the basement before lockout/tagout procedures were complete. While looking at the cooling fans, a counterweight was de-energized, and it fell, striking the apprentice.
OSHA issued a citation to Action arising from the death, and Action challenged that citation. Action was able to convince an Administrative Law Judge that the LOTO standard did not apply because the counterweight was not the same equipment being serviced by the Action employee, and the employees were not servicing the fans at the time, but merely viewing them.
During the ALJ proceedings, the Secretary of Labor (through attorneys) wrote briefs clarifying that the LOTO standard applied “to all pieces of equipment that ‘function together as one system’ when servicing or maintenance is performed on any part of that system.” The Eleventh Circuit found that the ALJ should have deferred to that interpretation of the LOTO standard, and reversed the ALJ’s decision.
The Eleventh Circuit has affirmed an OSHA fine against an employer, who failed to predict that its employee would be run-over by a dump truck. Pepper Contracting Svcs. v. OSHA, No. 14-0714, 2016 WL 3971718 (11th Cir. Jul. 25, 2016).
In Pepper, a construction company was re-paving a roadway. Part of the re-paving involved “milling” the road — a process by which old asphalt is removed from the road and deposited in a dump truck. If you’ve ever been stuck in a construction zone, you know this is a slow process — proceeding 10 feet per minute, or under 3 miles per hour. A foreman directed an employee, Alex Diaz, to clear a roadside obstruction approximately 90 feet in front of the milling activities. That duty required Diaz to stand in the road while working with a shovel. The foreman did not inform the milling crew that Diaz was working ahead of the project.
Two dump trucks were located in the area where the milling was occurring. One of the dump truck operators honked his horn at the other driver. The second driver was startled, accelerated his truck away from the milling operations, and struck Diaz who was 83 to 88 feet away.
This seems like a tragic, unpredictable accident. Nevertheless, OSHA fined Pepper Contracting for failing to furnish its employees with a place of employment free of recognized hazards that are likely to cause injury or death. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed that decision. The Court relied upon three critical facts: (1) the foreman left Diaz standing in the path of the milling convoy; (2) the foreman permitted the milling convoy to continue work even though Diaz was in the path; and, (3) the foreman failed to warn the dump truck drivers that Diaz was in their path.
Pepper demonstrates the difficulties faced by employers in industries using heavy equipment. A random, unpredictable series of events can lead to tragic consequences, and potential liability.