Employee falls and other construction hazards continue as a primary source of North Carolina workplace injuries and deaths. Several years ago, North Carolina OSHA increased its citation of general contractors for unsafe work practices by their subcontractors. Normally, employers are only liable for workplace hazards that affect their own employees. However, under OSHA’s multiemployer worksite (MEW) theory, a general contractor that has control over a worksite can even be cited for hazards presented only to employers of another entity.

In our recent experience, NCOSHA is liberally interpreting MEW to cite general contractors in situations where the general contractor had in place regular safety inspections and enforcement policies in the event of noncompliance. NCOSHA has alleged that if the safety program had been effective, the violations would not have occurred, or that the general contractor’s representative failed to remain on-site until the subcontractor demonstrated compliance before restarting work.

These interpretations place a heavy burden on general contractors that often oversee multiple subcontractors over spread out construction sites. In the absence of full-time safety monitoring of subcontractors, the general contractor remains open to questions from NCOSHA as to the effectiveness of its safety processes.

NCOSHA’s expansive interpretation of MEW may not stand up to legal scrutiny. However, the agency appears to have made the administrative decision that pushing the limits of the law is the best way to force better safety compliance by small and often transient framing, roofing, and similar subcontractors. General construction contractors need to be aware of this policy shift and prepared to address instances of subcontractor safety violations.