Seyfarth Synopsis: New Review Commission decision refines the definition of what OSHA must prove to establish a “Repeat” violation.

On September 30, 2008, OSHA issued a citation to Angelica Textile Services, Inc., a commercial laundry, alleging ten Serious and four Repeat items. Seyfarth represented the employer, Angelica Textile Services, Inc. After the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment, the Administrative Law Judge issued a decision affirming two of the Serious items and vacating the remaining twelve items, including the Repeat citations. The Secretary of Labor appealed, arguing that the judge improperly vacated two Repeat citations that alleged deficiencies of permit required confined spaces (PRCS) and lockout/tagout (LOTO) procedures.

On July 24, 2018, nearly a decade after the citations were issued, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (Commission) affirmed the previously vacated citation items, but characterized and reclassified them as Serious rather than Repeat violations, and issued a single reduced penalty of $7,000. See Secretary of Labor v. Angelica Textile Services, Inc., No. 08-1774.

Most importantly, the Commission refined the definition of what OSHA must prove to establish a Repeat violation. OSHA has traditionally taken the position that all the evidence it had to show to meet the “substantial similarity” standard was merely that the same type of equipment, process or regulation that was involved in the current violation was also involved in a prior final citation which served as the basis for the Repeat violation. In the Angelica decision, the Commission clarified that a showing of “substantial similarity” can be rebutted with a showing of “disparate conditions and hazards associated with these violations of the same standard.”

The decision also refined what defenses an employer may have to a Repeat citation based on the abatement actions it took to abate the earlier violation. Applied to the facts of the case, the Commission noted that the prior PRCS citation identified “critical deficiencies” in the employer’s compliance program. However, in response to the prior citation, the Company “actively sought out and eliminated similar hazards,” including developing a PRCS program specific to the condition cited.

The majority in Angelica noted that the Company’s prior abatement efforts also resulted in reduced citations in the current matter. Similarly, the Commission noted that the prior LOTO citation to the Company had identified a “comprehensive failure of compliance.” However, the present case involved procedures established in the interim, as well as surveys completed for machines that the Company had undertaken in response to the prior violations. Rather than lacking the previous comprehensive procedures as was the case in the earlier citations, there were only two discrete deficiencies in the employer’s current program.

Significantly, the Commission also remarked in a footnote that the Secretary had accepted the Company’s prior abatement method, thus giving no basis for OSHA to conclude that the Company knew that its interim safety precautions and corrective actions were not compliant.

After comparing the employer’s attempts at compliance with the prior and subsequent citations, the Commission reasoned that, while the prior citations had been based on a complete failure to comply, the current citations reflected only minimal deficiencies. In other words, “[the Company] took affirmative steps to achieve compliance and avoid similar violations in the future.” Because of these interim abatement actions, the Commission concluded that there was no basis for a Repeat citation.

In light of the Angelica decision, it appears that OSHA’s burden of proof has been measurably increased to establish a Repeat violation and it will be more difficult for OSHA to prove Repeat citations against employers. Following the acceptance of a citation, employers should work with a team well versed in the concepts espoused in the Angelica decision so that it can take the appropriate steps to establish that it acted in good faith and took effective and documented action to correct the violation. Employers should “actively [seek] out and eliminate[] similar hazards,” or “[take] affirmative steps to achieve compliance and avoid similar violations in the future.” As there is no mechanical way to avoid a Repeat citation, and the corrective actions taken will depend on the factual circumstances surrounding the citation, employers should consult experienced counsel for guidance on what constitutes abatement of the citation and how to properly document such actions. Most importantly, beyond the concern of legal liability, if an employer takes the interim actions endorsed by the Angelica decision, it will measurably enhance the safety and health of its workplace.