On December 7, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a Denver-based information technology services provider must reinstate a whistleblower who raised concerns about the company’s failure to pay trust fund taxes to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). 303 Technologies Inc. violated the Taxpayer First Act, according to the agency, and must pay the employee more than $81,000 in back wages and provide 24.5 percent stock ownership in the company.
“The Taxpayer First Act protects employees’ rights to report actual or potential tax-law violations or engage in other protected activities,” Jennifer S. Rous, OSHA’s Denver regional administrator, said in an agency statement. “OSHA enforces federal laws that protect employees who report possible wrongdoing from fear of retaliation and punishment.”
OSHA’s whistleblower protection authority was first established in the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 to protect workers who lodge safety or health complaints or cooperate in investigations of workplace safety and health violations. The agency is now responsible for investigating whistleblower complaints under more than 20 federal statutes, ranging from aviation, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, food, motor vehicle, nuclear, and pipeline safety to anti-money laundering, criminal antitrust, environmental, financial reform, health insurance reform, maritime, public transportation, railroad, securities, and tax laws.
OSHA cites employer in confined space fatalities
Texarkana, Arkansas-based Belt Construction Inc. failed to test oxygen levels in a confined space before 2 workers entered a sewer 20 feet below the ground at an Edmond, Oklahoma, worksite and died because of a lack of oxygen, OSHA reported December 7. The agency cited Belt Construction with 6 serious and 2 willful violations, seeking proposed penalties totaling $287,150.
Agency inspectors concluded that on June 14, an employee of Belt Construction climbed into a newly installed sewer manhole to conduct testing when the worker lost consciousness. Trying to rescue the worker, a second employee followed into the manhole and lost consciousness. The two workers later succumbed to their injuries.
The employer did not complete required planning before allowing workers to enter the space, according to OSHA. In pre-entry planning, a confined space must be tested for safety, including determining if ventilation is needed. Belt Construction also failed to provide rescue equipment and did not train workers on confined space entry procedures or obtain permits required by federal law.
“Two lives were lost–and family, friends, and co-workers are left to grieve–because Belt Construction Inc. failed to follow legally required steps designed to prevent a needless incident like this from happening,” Steven Kirby, OSHA’s Oklahoma City area director, said in an agency statement. “Employers assigning people to work inside a confined space must comply with safety standards, including providing and ensuring the use of required safety equipment, and obtain all necessary permits before the job starts to avoid tragedy.”
From 2011 to 2018, 1,030 workers died in confined space incidents—61 of them in sewers, manholes, and storm drains—according to recently reported Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
There are a variety of confined space hazards across industries. A permit-required confined space is one that contains or can contain a hazardous atmosphere; contains material that may engulf a worker; has walls that converge inward or floors that slope downward and taper into a smaller area where a worker can become trapped or asphyxiate; or contains a recognized safety or health hazard, such as excessive heat, exposed live wires, or unguarded machinery.