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OSHA proposes fines in workplace fatality case

Employers in Florida and around the country must meet standards laid down by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and obtain permits before asking workers to enter confined and potentially toxic environments, and the penalties for failing to meet these requirements can be severe. An industrial contractor and a petroleum refiner in Alabama were recently reminded of this when OSHA proposed that they be fined more than $100,000 for not securing an area where a worker asphyxiated after losing his air supply.

The workplace accident took place at a Tuscaloosa refining facility. OSHA cited the industrial contractor for not taking steps to ensure that rescue teams could reach workers in confined spaces and allowing workers to enter these areas with inadequate lighting equipment. The company has also been cited for placing workers in danger by giving rescue teams other duties to perform.

The petroleum refiner was criticized by OSHA investigators for not identifying the hazards workers would face in confined spaces and taking insufficient steps to protect them. The company was also cited for not periodically evaluating the safety measures put into place by the contractor. The two companies have 15 days to comply with OSHA recommendations or file an appeal with the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

Attorneys with experience in workers' compensation cases could use OSHA sanctions to support arguments alleging that employers acted with gross negligence. When employers behaved so recklessly that death or serious injury became inevitable, attorneys in some cases can file personal injury lawsuits against them. While workers' compensation benefits are designed to replace lost income and cover medical bills, personal injury lawsuits involving gross negligence could include claims for punitive damages. These damages are awarded to deter others from behaving in the same reckless way.

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