Risky Business: An alarming resolution
03/06/2013

A rental store owner made the decision to install an alarm on the store’s property. The owner spoke with his counterparts in the rental industry and heard the pros and cons of several different companies. He invited representatives from a few of the companies to his store to provide an estimate on the installation of the alarm system.

The owner determined which company would work best for his organization and scheduled an appointment for the installation of the system for the following week. The technician arrived and began running wire to install the alarm system.

She made her way through the premises and, several hours later, all that was left to wire was the garage area. As she entered the room, she noticed the lighting in this part of the building was not as bright as some of the other locations. She waited for her eyes to become accustomed to the dimly lit room and then continued her wiring project.

Nearly finished, she stepped backwards to survey her work and fell into the service bay. The service bay was used for servicing and maintaining vehicles from underneath, however the pit was not currently in use and did not have a vehicle parked over the opening.

No employees of the rental store actually saw her fall, but heard the resulting commotion and entered the room to find her peering at them over the side of the service bay. She bruised her shin and her ego in the fall and was teased some for falling, but she completed her task without complaint.

Two and a half years later, the rental store owner received a summons to appear in court. The technician from the alarm company alleged she was severely injured in her fall into the service bay and was entitled to compensation for past, present and future pain and suffering, reimbursement of medical bills, lost earnings, lost earning capacity, and non-medical expenses and costs due to the negligence of the rental store.

The lawsuit’s paperwork went on to say that the rental store should have known that the garage pit constituted a danger to persons on the premises and the persons performing work on the premises would be less likely to notice the vast hole in the floor. The technician and her attorney believed that the rental store owner should have known that the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) required protective devices and notices when there were openings in the floor.

In addition, the suit stated that the technician’s injury was a direct result of the rental store’s actions or failures to act including:

  • Failing to warn visitors of the opening in the floor.
  • Failing to place guards around the opening in the floor.
  • Failing to place guards or a cover over the opening in the floor.
  • Failing to comply with OSHA regulations.
  • Failing to adequately light the area where there was an opening in the floor.
  • Failing to post adequate warnings.

The rental store owner turned in a claim to his insurance carrier and the process began to determine exactly what went wrong. The investigation determined that there was additional lighting available in the garage. The technician did not bring to anyone’s attention the dimness in the room and she continued working.

Most importantly, the investigation revealed that the rental store was in fact in violation of several OSHA regulations. OSHA standard 1910.23(a)(5) states that:

“Every pit and trapdoor floor opening, infrequently used, shall be guarded by a floor opening cover of standard strength and construction. While the cover is not in place, the pit or trap opening shall be constantly attended by someone or shall be protected on all exposed sides by removable standard railings.”

If you have a floor opening, be sure it’s guarded by at least one of the following:

  • Strong hinged coverings with railings to protect workers from falls.
  • A fully enclosed railing system that can be moved out of the way when needed.
  • A sentinel or guard who will stand watch at the hole while it’s open and warn nearby workers about the danger.

A resolution could not be agreed upon at mediation and the case went to trial. A jury awarded the injured technician a near mid-six figure settlement. If the rental store owner had ensured that his employees were aware of the OSHA regulations and enforced them, he would have saved the alarm company technician her injury and an expensive claim on his record.

More information from OSHA about floor openings can be found online at osha.gov and searching for “floor openings.”

Mary Ann Gormly, CERP, is risk management coordinator for ARA Insurance, Kansas City, Mo. For more information, call 800-821-6580 or visit ARAinsure.com.