Employment Law Blog

News, trends and analysis in employment law and HR

Nov 13, 2019

New hire fatality from wood chipper results in $67k penalty

Safety and Health 

A sole proprietor of a tree-trimming business was ordered to pay $66,986 in penalties after an employee was killed by a wood chipper on his first day on the job. A crew of four workers, including the new employee, met in the morning at the owner’s house. Two of the workers were experienced; one of them briefly pointed out the chipper control bar and explained that the newer workers should walk away from the chipper once the infeed wheels started pulling in material. The owner didn’t provide any instructions, and also didn’t require the employees to wear hard hats, safety glasses, or leg protection as they all worked together to remove large trees from three residential properties that day. The owner later claimed he intended for the two inexperienced employees only to clear brush and rake debris, but security video at the second house showed the owner facing toward an inexperienced employee who was feeding brush into the wood chipper. At the third house, tragedy struck. No one saw what happened, but the owner suddenly saw the worker’s body within the infeed hopper.
 
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited the employer for four serious safety violations (failure to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) while the trees were being cut down, and failure to train employees on the use of PPE) and one willful violation (failure to train workers using the chipper and allowing unsafe practices in feeding the chipper, in violation of OSHA’s general duty clause). OSHA had argued for the maximum penalty for the willful violations, but an administrative law judge reduced the dollar amount because the owner had few assets, resulting in a total of $66,986 in penalties due (Sec. of Labor v. Tony Watson, dba Countryside Tree Service, OSHRC ALJ, Sept. 2019).

Tips: Before assigning anyone to use or work around machinery for the first time, it’s critical to review machine-specific safety instructions and ensure employees wear proper PPE. New hires, temporary workers, and existing employees who are assigned to a new job are all at a heightened risk of injury. Be sure a new worker has the opportunity to ask questions. You should also verify that they understood the instructions by having them repeat them back to you or otherwise demonstrate competence before operating hazardous machinery. Vigilant members can contact your Vigilant safety professional with any questions about proper safety training, and see our Model Form, “Job Safety Analysis” (1042).

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This website presents general information in nontechnical language. This information is not legal advice. Before applying this information to a specific management decision, consult legal counsel.

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