Beth Steel was punished too severely, court says Case stemmed from worker's death in '90

November 15, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The Court of Appeals made it tougher yesterday for Maryland safety regulators to impose heavy fines for workplace violations, ruling that Bethlehem Steel was excessively punished for the 1990 death of a steel worker.

Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH) officials failed justify citing Bethlehem Steel for "repeat" violations after Raymond Pritts was electrocuted by a defective toaster oven in a Sparrows Point lunchroom, the court said.

The court ruled 4-3 that it was unfair for MOSH to link earlier violations at Sparrows Point with the defective, employee-owned toaster oven that killed Pritts.

Repeat safety violations carry a $70,000 maximum fine; serious violations, a $7,000 maximum fine. But the court said to impose the stiffer fine, MOSH must prove the infractions were "substantially similar."

The Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Act "does not require employer omniscience in the area of workplace safety," Judge Robert L. Karwacki wrote for the majority.

Lawyers for Bethlehem Steel said the ruling should make MOSH more careful about issuing stiff repeat violation fines to employers for unrelated safety violations at the same plant.

"Our argument was, if you're cited for faulty wiring in an overhead crane, should you be hit with a repeat violation for a faulty toaster in a break room? I don't think so," said Eric Hemmendinger, a Bethlehem Steel lawyer.

Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Krasnoff said the decision will force MOSH to show the similarity of infractions when an employer is cited for a repeat violation. "When the time comes to litigate a case, MOSH is going to have to delve into the previous violations more, bring forth evidence that the violations were similar and how they were similar," he said.

MOSH, which oversees safety conditions for 1.9 million workers at 133,526 work sites, issued 90 repeat violations in 1995.

Pritts, 53, was electrocuted Aug. 17, 1990, when he placed his hand on a toaster oven that had been giving shocks to users and was patched with duct tape, as his foot was touching an electric cooling unit, according to court records. Bethlehem Steel was fined only $3,640, but sued in Baltimore County Circuit Court to contest the repeat violation, arguing that the previous citations had nothing to do with the defective toaster. Bethlehem Steel was cited in 1987 for having frayed and dry rotted wiring on an overhead crane, in 1989 for leaving floor-mounted electrical motors exposed to water and chemicals and in 1990 for having improperly spliced wiring on an electrical panel.

Judge Howard S. Chasanow, writing for the dissent, said those previous violations should have been sufficient to alert Bethlehem Steel to the need to make repairs. "These standards are designed to protect employees, and the third instance of ignoring equipment with a recognized risk of causing death or serious physical injury ought to at least establish a prima facia case of a repeated violation," Chasanow said.

Pub Date: 11/15/96

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