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By R. Lee Vail, P.E., Ph.D.

At the very end of 2016, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated two Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) citations against an employer that allegedly failed to timely resolve open findings and recommendations from Process Hazard Analysis (PHA). The 2008 citation related to multiple PHAs that occurred over a decade (with the last being 2005) and a 2005 compliance audit. In doing so, the Court narrowed these process safety management requirements to no more than addressing and resolving the findings in a timely manner:

Neither Section 1910.119(e)(5) nor (o)(4) mandates that the employer actually remedy the issues addressed in a PHA or audit recommendation. See 29 C.F.R. § 1910.119(e)(5), (o)(4). Subsection (e)(5) directs the employer to “address” the findings from a PHA and to “resolve[ ]” them in a timely manner. Likewise, subsection (o)(4) directs employers to “determine and document an appropriate response” to the audit compliance findings.

Delek Ref., Ltd. v. Occupational Safety & Health Review Comm’n, 845 F.3d 170, 178 (5th Cir. 2016)

This case followed AKM LLC dba Volks Constructors v. Sec’y of Labor, 675 F.3d 752 (D.C. Cir. 2012), where the Court concluded the obligation to create a record was a onetime event and that OSHA was barred from citing a facility six months after that record should have been created. In considering PHA recommendations, the Fifth Circuit concluded:

Just as a single violation “occurr[ed]” in Volks when the company failed to create the records within the prescribed time-period, so too a violation of subsections (e)(5) and (o)(4) “occur[s]” within the meaning of Section 658(c) when an employer does not “promptly” or “timely” do as Section 1910.119 directs.

Id. at 176–77.

OSHA’s argued that the “address and resolve” obligation was continuous and that any failure was a continuing violation. Arguably, if the violation is continuing, a violation accrues on the first non-timely day and every day thereafter. According to the holding in this case, six months after that first non-timely day, OSHA is barred from issuing a citation. So what is timely? The Fifth Circuit noted that OSHA has historically placed this timely obligation at 1 – 2 years.

The Secretary has, on at least one occasion, taken the position that a response to PHA and audit recommendations is “timely” when it is done within “one to two years.” See Secretary of Labor v. BP Prods. N. Am., Inc., 2013 WL 9850777, at *37 (OSHRC Aug. 12, 2013). We need not address this issue here, however, because the Secretary has not argued that the citations underlying Items 4 and 12 would be timely under the interpretation of Section 658(c) we now adopt, even if Section 1910.119’s references to “timely” or “prompt” action afforded an employer more than one or two years to resolve open PHA or audit recommendations.

Id. at 177.

As such, if two years is timely, a citation issued within two years of the PHA recommendation would be premature; a citation issued after two and a half years would be barred. Such will likely place OSHA in a quandary . . . in order to argue that similar PHA citations are not time barred, OSHA may need to provide more time to “address and resolve.” Even then, an action becomes barred six months after whatever OSHA defines as timely. Only a six month window exists where OSHA can issue a citation with the big question being “where does the window start?”

This decision could have a much broader effect. For example, is the failure to conduct a pre-startup review no longer citable six months after startup?