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Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Courthouse News Service
Tuesday, February 27, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Duty in Utah to Provide a Safe Workplace Limited

(CN) - Utah employers are responsible only for the workplace safety of their own employees, not those of subcontractors, the state Supreme Court ruled.

In a construction project involving more than 100 subcontractors at Parowan High School, in Parowan, Utah, Hughes General Contractors was cited and fined for unsafe erection of scaffolding.

Hughes itself did not erect the unsafe scaffolding, which likewise did not endanger any of its direct employees.

Rather, masonry subcontractor B.A. Robinson erected the scaffolding, affecting its workers.

In keeping with federal regulations, however, a compliance officer with the Utah Occupational Safety and Health Administration (UOSHA) held both B.A. Robinson and Hughes responsible, the latter as a controlling employer and general supervisor under the multi-employer worksite doctrine.

Hughes contested the ruling, and the Utah Supreme Court reversed the citation Friday, upending Utah's use of the federal standard for workplace safety.

"We reject the multi-employer worksite doctrine as incompatible with the governing Utah statute," Justice Thomas Lee wrote for the five-judge panel. "Specifically, we hold that the responsibility for ensuring occupational safety under the governing statute is limited to an employer's responsibility to its employees."

Federal OSHA regulations expressly incorporate the multi-employer doctrine, but Utah state law does not, according to the ruling.

"Our Utah regulations have not incorporated the federal provision to which the federal courts have deferred in upholding the multi-employer worksite doctrine. And in any event our law affords no deference to federal regulations on questions of law," the 10-page opinion states.

Utah regulations clearly place occupational safety responsibility on the employer, as defined by a traditional employment relationship, the court found.

"Hughes was not an employer in connection with the work done by B.A. Robinson's workers," Lee wrote. "It had none of the rights of control identified in our cases - as to hiring and firing, method of payment, etc. Instead it had only general supervisory authority over the worksite. That did not render it an employer subject to sanctions for failure to comply with UOSHA."

And while the court found it possible that a multi-employer duty would enhance worker safety, UOSHA regulations seek to balance that objective with the employers' interests.

"Workplace safety is at its core, but the statute also obviously balances concerns for fairness to employers," Lee added.

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