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General Contractors' Obligations for OSHA Compliance Expanded


General contractors have an increased responsibility to insure that their subcontractors and their employees comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations under a recent decision from the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

In Commissioner of Labor v. Weekley Homes, L.P., a unanimous panel of the Court of Appeals held that a general contractor is responsible not only for the safety of its employees, but also for the safety of its subcontractors' employees. Weekley was acting as a general contractor on a residential subdivision project. Weekley only maintained two employees on site who were primarily responsible for coordinating nearly one hundred subcontractors and material suppliers.

An OSHA inspector observed workers on a steep roof without fall protection, which was in violation of OSHA's standards. Despite the fact that Weekley's employees were not involved in the activity, OSHA cited Weekley for failing to conduct regular inspections of the jobsite. The subcontractor who directly employed these workers was apparently not cited. Weekley contested the citation and took the position that OSHA requires it to insure the safety of its own employees and does not require it to be responsible for the safety of employees of its independent contractors. The North Carolina Safety and Health Review Board agreed with the Commissioner that Weekley was responsible. Further review by the Superior Court and the North Carolina Court of Appeals left this determination intact.

The Court of Appeals took a broad view of North Carolina's OSHA statutes saying that the obligation to provide a safe workplace does not mean the obligation is limited to direct employees but also applies to employees of subcontractors. In reaching this decision, the Court highlighted language in Weekley's contract with subcontractor Paige that allowed Weekley, among other things, to "compel Paige to comply with all safety, health and other laws, ordinances and rules and regulations applicable to the project." As a result, Weekley had the power to protect its subcontractor's employees.

The lesson that general contractors need to take from this case is thorough and complete supervision of the construction site cannot be overemphasized. Contractual provisions that retain control over a subcontractor's activities and insist on compliance with safety regulations may end up leaving the general contractor liable to an administrative agency for that subcontractor's violations.

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