OSHA cites employer for workplace fatality in Joplin tornado recovery

Missourians remember all too well the devastation and pain brought to the Joplin community by the May 2011 tornado. Classified an EF5 with winds more than 200 mph, the terrible storm damaged city infrastructure that is still being repaired or replaced more than a year later.

And tragically, a year after the actual event another fatality related to the tornado occurred at 25th Street and Moffet Avenue when the employee of a water utility company working on utility repairs was killed. The gasoline-powered saw he was using kicked back and struck him because the iron water-main pipe he was cutting was not properly supported and the blade was pinched as a result.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration in November 2012 cited the company for a willful violation of work-safety laws in the incident. The agency is responsible for the enforcement of federal work-safety laws and regulations. OSHA found that the employer had not properly trained its employee for that particular task and that the company had not seen that the man followed the manufacturer's safety instructions or the employer's own policies in how he handled the saw.

A willful violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act occurs when an employer allows a workplace hazard "likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees." In this tragic Joplin construction site accident, the alleged willful violations that caused the worker's death brought an employer fine of $140,000. (It is unknown if the company has contested the citation.)

Potential legal remedies for Missouri victims of workplace hazards

Missouri's workers' compensation system provides no-fault benefits to employees hurt in on-the-job accidents like the Joplin tragedy or sickened by occupational illness, or to their families in cases of work-related death. Workers' comp benefits in most instances are awarded regardless of whose fault the harm was and in exchange the employer is normally immune from most traditional lawsuits. In most situations, workers' compensation is the exclusive legal remedy for employment-related harm.

Missouri law provides that some employee actions may reduce or eliminate the workers' compensation benefit award. Examples include situations involving:

  • Purposeful self-inflicted harm
  • Failure to follow safety rules or use safety equipment when the employer made the requirement clear
  • Illegal drugs or alcohol in violation of company rules
  • Recreation, in some circumstances

By contrast, the workers' comp award may be increased where the employer acted unlawfully.

In addition to workers' compensation, a Missouri employee may be able to sue his or her employer for workplace harm like in some situations involving intentional employer infliction of injury or for harm incurred after the employment relationship is over. Suits are sometimes available against a few classes of potentially liable third parties like certain co-employees or owners of work premises.

If you are hurt at work or a loved one killed, be sure to consult with an experienced Missouri workers' compensation and work injury lawyer to explore your potential legal rights and remedies.