Have you ever heard the statement that “ignorance of the law is no excuse?” I heard that when I was younger as an admonition to not do something that was potentially illegal because even if you did not explicitly know it was illegal, you could still be found guilty. As I grew up and got into Human Resources I found that case to be especially true. In Wage and Hour law, it is illegal to not pay earned overtime to nonexempt employees, even if you thought the employee was exempt from overtime. You should have known the proper classification and ignorance is no excuse. OSHA is the same way. No knowing the safety regulations is not an excuse, especially if an employee is harmed because of a violation of the law. That is just the situation a company in Georgia found itself in.
An HVAC contractor was installing equipment on the roof of a car dealership. The roof had several holes, in preparation for skylights. They were only covered with plastic sheets, rather than wood or metal to close the opening. The HVAC contractors were working near these openings with nothing to keep them from falling through. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened. When one of the workers was sawing a hole in the metal roof his saw blade stuck and it threw him off balance and he plummeted through the hole, falling 15 feet and dying when he struck the floor.
OSHA, upon investigation, charged the HVAC contractor with a willful violation for the reckless disregard of the OSHA fall prevention standards. The company argued that the “willful” aspect was unfair ”because its site foreman simply was ignorant of the OSHA fall protection requirements due to alleged deficiencies in the contractor’s training program. The contractor argued that its flawed training program should preclude a finding of ‘willfulness.’”
As you can imagine this argument of we cannot be held responsible because we did not train the supervisor fell on deaf ears. In fact, the courts said, “To hold that such inadequacy – and the resulting unfamiliarity – precludes classification of a violation as willful would perversely allow [the contractor] to use its ineffective training as a defense against OSHA’s most serious charge . . . .” The court found that the leadman had acted in reckless disregard of employee safety, and, even if he had known the rules he most likely would have ignored them.
Since ignorance is not a sufficient plea, the ignorance needs to be eliminated. Proper training is the solution. Since companies are going to be held responsible for the actions of supervisors under respondent superior, the company can best protect itself by making sure supervisors, leadmen, and managers are properly trained. In comparison to the $49,000 fine and the costs yet to come from the finding of a willful violation having led to an employee’s death, training is cheap.
Save yourself by making sure HR, supervisors, managers, and employees know what the rules and regulations are around all aspects of having employees. Despite the money, the biggest savings would have been the employee’s life.
Thanks to Nicholas Fox of Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP for the inspiration for this post.