Using OSHA to your advantage
OSHA is an executive branch organization under the Department of Labor that seeks to ensure a safe working environment for all workers in the United States. Washington state is one of about thirty states that have chosen to implement its own version of OSHA. Basically, at one point in the past, individual states were required to either submit to and enforce federal OSHA’s regulations, or instead to agree to put in place its own equivalent, which would meet certain minimum requirements. The state versions of OSHA would be allowed some deviation from the national standards.
What that means, is that for most workers in Washington, if there is an unsafe working environment, the state office of OSHA would be responsible for investigating and possibly fining employers based on investigation of claims. However, we all know that Seattle and Western Washington are home to a great deal of business done via cargo boats, passenger boats, fishing vessels, and other types of maritime business operations.
For the most part, the Washington’s OSHA jurisdiction ends on the shoreline. If a person is working on a boat, for example, and he or she is injured while working on the boat, even if the boat is parked in the Port of Seattle, federal OSHA would have jurisdiction.
If an employer does not comply with OSHA’s regulations in some way, it is subject to fines by OSHA. The catch is that OSHA will only investigate an injury within six months of when it occurs. If an employee does not report his or her employer, then OSHA will not know about it, and chances are OSHA will not do a random inspection within that six months. Six months is a much shorter time period, for example, than an ordinary statute of limitations for a civil action for an injury in the workplace.
And, of course, the logical question is, “Why would a fine from OSHA to an employer compensate the victim/employee?” The answer is, it does not. However, when building a case on behalf of a plaintiff, if a defendant can be shown to have violated some kind of statute, law, ordinance, or regulation, especially one that is specifically intended to ensure safety and prevent injury, then showing that violation to the judge or jury can be some evidence of negligence, or in the case of maritime, unseaworthiness.
Thus, if someone is injured on a boat while performing his or her job duties, he or she would be smart to file a ccomplaint with OSHA and seek an investigation, rather than hoping that OSHA may conduct a random inspection of that employer. Because once the six months pass, that opportunity is gone.