My State:
March 13, 2013
Law office employee suffers injury; Employer suffers citations

On Friday, September 16, 2011, a new employee had just started working at the Law Offices of Christopher P. Ruiz, APLC, in Santa Ana. When she walked out of the building that day, she missed her footing on the front step and was seriously injured, fracturing both of her ankles.

While the worker was being treated at the hospital that evening for the work-related injuries, an unrelated complication arose that resulted in the need for surgery.

The employee was hospitalized for an extended period as a result.

The employer did not report the injuries until 3 days after they happened, for several reasons:

  • The employer was not sure whether the injuries were reportable because the accident occurred outside the building.

  • The employer was also unsure if the injuries were reportable because the condition for which the employee was hospitalized, and that required surgery, was unrelated to the accident.

  • The employer was unaware that Cal/OSHA could be contacted 24 hours a day, any day of the week, to report a work-related accident, and therefore waited until Monday morning, September 19, to report the accident.

After the employer reported the injuries, Cal/OSHA inspected the workplace. The employer was cited for not reporting a serious injury to Cal/OSHA within 8 hours and for not having an Injury and Illness Prevention Program (IIPP). The employer appealed the citations.

Practice tip

To report a workplace accident, contact the Cal/OSHA Enforcement Unit district office closest to the accident site. The offices are listed on the unit's website.

Sorting out reporting requirements

The administrative law judge (ALJ) who heard the appeal first addressed whether the worker's injuries were serious, which would trigger the reporting requirement. The worker's initial injuries, resulting from her fall, included the fractures of both ankles. These did not require hospitalization, but they did qualify as serious injuries and were reportable.

The second issue the ALJ addressed was when the employer knew that the employee's injuries were reportable. Because of the confusion arising from the multiple medical situations—the fractured ankles and the unrelated medical condition that led to her hospital stay—the employer was not certain until 11:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 17, that her injuries were, in fact, reportable.

At that point, the ALJ determined, the clock began to run on the employer's requirement to report the injuries. Employers have 8 hours from the time they learn of (or, with diligent effort, would have known of) a serious injury to report that injury to Cal/OSHA; under "exigent" circumstances, employers may have as long as 24 hours to report.

This employer, however, was unaware that Cal/OSHA requires injury reporting even on Sundays, and waited until Monday morning to report, making the report 9 hours late, even by the 24-hour standard.

The ALJ upheld the citation for failing to report a serious injury but reduced the employer's penalty from the proposed $5,000 to $1,850. The ALJ gave the following reasons for reducing the penalty:

  • The employer did, in fact, report the injuries. Some employers fail to report altogether. When Cal/OSHA learns out about an injury from another source, like Emergency Medical Services or law enforcement, penalties are seldom reduced.

  • The employer provided prompt medical attention for the employee. Again, some employers do not do this—for example, sending workers home to rest when they are suffering from acute heat illness. That didn't happen here.

  • The employer cooperated with Cal/OSHA during its investigation.

  • A safety violation didn't cause the employee's injuries, so no accident-related violation was issued.

  • This incident involved a small employer, with only six employees. Cal/OSHA tends to offer leniency to small employers on fines whenever it can justifiably do so.

The IIPP issue

The employer was not at fault for the worker's injuries; she simply missed her footing on the step at the front door. However, the inspection that resulted from her fall revealed two weaknesses in her employer's Cal/OSHA compliance: The employer did not fully understand the rules for reporting serious injuries, and the employer had no IIPP.

The IIPP requirement applies to all California employers—not just to high-hazard employers, industrial employers, or agricultural employers. Even employers whose risk of a Cal/OSHA inspection is minimal are required to have an IIPP. The ALJ upheld the citation for not having an IIPP.

As this employer discovered, if the unforeseen occurs, and you're suddenly the focus of a Cal/OSHA inspection, the lack of an IIPP will likely result in a citation. Don't think it can't happen to you.

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