General contractors on multi-employer worksites are not responsible for the safety of their subcontractors, the Utah Supreme Court has ruled.
With the decision, the court rejected the federal labor law known as the multi-employer worksite doctrine, which holds a general contractor accountable for the safety of all employees on a worksite, including those of subcontractors. The court asserted that the federal doctrine is “incompatible with the governing Utah statute.”
“Specifically, we hold that the responsibility for ensuring occupational safety under the governing statute is limited to an employer’s responsibility to its employees,” wrote Justice Thomas Lee in the court’s ruling.
The decision comes on an appeal filed by Hughes General Contractors, which was hit with citations and fines for safety violations while overseeing a renovation project at Parowan High School. Among the penalties, Utah OSHA held Hughes accountable for the scaffolding violation of masonry contractor B.A. Robinson, invoking the federal multi-employer worksite doctrine. Hughes contested the citation, on the grounds that Utah OSHA “erroneously interpreted or applied the law.”
While the Utah Supreme Court acknowledged that federal courts have consistently upheld the multi-employer worksite doctrine, the court noted that the applicable Utah statute “is not a mirror-image of its federal counterpart.”
In its interpretation of the Utah statute that requires employers to provide safe work environments for their employees, the court concluded that the law only applies to workers who are directly employed by the employers.
The court ruled in favor of Hughes General Contractors, reversing the citation and fine against the company. In doing so, the Supreme Court overturned the decisions of an administrative law judge and the Utah Labor Commission, asserting that their respective decisions were “based on a legal ground that we now repudiate.”
“Hughes was not an ‘employer’ in connection with the work done by B.A. Robinson’s workers,” Lee wrote. “It had none of the rights of control identified in our cases – as to hiring and firing, method of payment, etc. Instead it had only general supervisory authority over the worksite. That did not render it an employer subject to sanctions for failure to comply with [Utah OSHA laws].”
Lee pointed out that the court’s ruling merely is an interpretation of the language of the law – and not a judgment on whether or not contractors should be held accountable for the safety of their subcontractors.
“It may well be, as the Labor Commission advocates, that a broad multi-employer duty to assure compliance with the standards of [Utah OSHA laws] would enhance workplace safety in Utah,” Lee wrote. “ … In any event, the interpretive function for us is not to divine and implement the statutory purpose, broadly defined. It is to construe its language.”