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Understanding Cal-OSHA citations

Posted: November 5, 2008 8:56 p.m.
Updated: November 6, 2008 4:59 a.m.
It's a safe bet that any business whose employees are engaged in construction, manufacturing, or other commercial production activities is probably familiar with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal-OSHA. This is the state agency which regulates and enforces California workplace safety and health standards, and which issues citations for any violations of those standards.

A citation is a written notice of a safety or health violation, usually based upon a Cal-OSHA inspection of a workplace or industrial accident. It typically must be issued within six months of the alleged violation, and it must describe the violation with particularity. It must also provide notice of any proposed penalty and provide a reasonable time for abatement.

There are five categories of violations for which a citation may be issued, each with their own penalty guidelines. These may generally be described as follows:

n A regulatory violation occurs when an employer fails to comply with administrative safety and health requirements, such as record keeping, reporting, posting or permit requirements. The penalty for a regulatory violation may be as high as $7,000. Failure to make a timely report of a death or serious illness or injury is subject to a minimum penalty of $5,000.

n A general violation occurs when an injury or illness results from a safety or health violation that is determined not to be likely to cause death or serious harm. The penalty for a general violation may be as high as $7,000.

n A serious violation occurs where there is a substantial probability that a safety or health violation could result in death or serious injury. A serious injury occurs whenever an employee suffers any loss of a body part, any degree of permanent disfigurement or any injury requiring hospitalization (other than for observation) for more than 24 hours. The base penalty for a serious violation is $18,000 and may be as high as $25,000.

n A willful violation occurs where it is determined that the employer committed an intentional and knowing safety or health violation, yet made no reasonable effort to eliminate the resulting hazard. The minimum penalty for a willful violation is $5,000 and may be as high as $70,000. A willful violation that causes death or prolonged physical impairment may also result in a criminal fine of up to $1.5 million and/or imprisonment for up to three years.

n A repeat violation occurs where an employer repeats the same safety or health violation within three years of a previous violation. The penalty for a repeat violation may be as high as $70,000.
One can easily see from this information that a Cal-OSHA citation - any Cal-OSHA citation - is a serious matter. In the eyes of the state, it is incumbent on all employers to anticipate potential safety or health hazards in the workplace, and to make reasonable efforts to eliminate or mitigate those hazards. Cal-OSHA also insists on scrupulous adherence to its administrative requirements, particularly those requirements governing illness and injury prevention, cleaning, maintenance and adjustment of machinery and record keeping and reporting of occupational injuries.

Some of the time limits for responding to Cal-OSHA citations, or for appealing them, are quite short. While it may not be possible to guarantee the safety of a particular workplace, it is extremely important to anticipate the kinds of safety and health hazards that are likely to arise, and to develop a plan for addressing them. This may include advance consultations with product suppliers, equipment manufacturers, outside consultants, or legal counsel. Certainly, any employer who is visited by a Cal-OSHA inspector and who believes that an inspection may result in a citation, should promptly consult with legal counsel.

With sound planning and preparation, California employers can hope both to prevent employee injuries and to be prepared in the event of receiving a Cal-OSHA citation.

John F. Grannis is a partner with Poole & Shaffery, LLP. His column represents his own views, and not necessarily those of The Signal. "It's The Law" appears Fridays and rotates between members of the Santa Clarita Valley Bar Association.


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