General-duty violation: OSHA inspector insists there must have been one

by on February 5, 2013 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

Sometimes crews fall into bad habits or questionable practices. If an accident occurs in the meantime, it can take a long time to sort it out. In this case, a crew’s habit of overtorquing bolts created enough ambiguity to trigger a long fight with OSHA.

In March 2008, a Florida contractor’s legs were broken when a hydrostatic pressure test blew apart a pipe being installed near Naples, FL. William Davis of Armadillo Underground, a Collier County, FL, suffered the worst injuries, but two members of his crew suffered lacerations from the flying pipe fragments.

Armadillo was installing piping for an underground water line. To connect the pipes during installation, Armadillo used a mechanical joint restraining gland and then, once installed, conducted hydrostatic pressure tests (minimum 150 psi) to ensure the joints and seals were watertight.

During one of these tests, a joint began to leak. With the pipe still pressurized, Davis asked two of his men to tighten the restraining gland. The leak stopped. Two minutes later, the pipe itself shattered, and heavy fragments tore into Davis’ legs, breaking them.

Kept it up
OSHA investigating and started a long process: The OSHA inspector insisted there must have been a general-duty violation – the company should have protected its workers from struck-by hazards. An OSHA judge and later the OSHA Review Commission dismissed the OSHA inspector’s series of arguments:

  1. The pipe should have been depressurized before the restraining gland was tightened. The manufacturer’s rep appeared on behalf of Armadillo and said, no, tightening a bolt in a pressurized pipe to leaks is industry practice under these circumstances. The judge believed the manufacturer.
  2. The manufacturers’ installation instructions warned that installers shouldn’t overtighten bolts to make up for not properly seating the seals. However, the OSHA judges said this appeared to be a quality-related warning, not necessarily a safety one.
  3. The OSHA inspector then argued that the T-bolts weren’t tightened within torque parameters. His investigation revealed that the company’s workers habitually over-torqued the bolts on this project. However, the OSHA Review Commission concluded that the manufacturer’s documentation didn’t state that overtightening creates a struck-by hazard.

What is a general duty violation?
OSHA’s general-duty clause has four elements:

  1. There’s a hazard: A condition or activity in the workplace presented a hazard.
  2. It’s known: The employer or its industry recognized the hazard.
  3. It’s dangerous: The hazard was likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and
  4. It can be mitigated: A feasible means existed to eliminate or materially reduce the hazard.

In this case, the judges said the accident wasn’t caused by a recognized hazard, and dismissed the case.

Take home: The habitual over torquing of the bolts may have contributed to the accident – or just created enough space for questions to create a five-year legal battle. Periodically check to see if workers have fallen into bad work habits that, if something went wrong, could lead to safety questions later.

Cite: Secretary of Labor v. K.E.R. Enterprises, Inc., No. 08-1225, OSHRC, 1/9/13.

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