Larry's Legal Lessons: Lack of Seat Belts can be Costly

If you are injured in a motor vehicle crash, through no fault of your own, a 2005 law will adversely impact your jury verdict if you were not wearing a seat belt.

OSHA - Seat Belt Citations: Federal OSHA does not have jurisdiction over state and local governmental agencies, including fire departments. They do have jurisdiction over private fire companies in 26 federal-OSHA states. In 24 other states, including Kentucky, there are state-OSHA plans. These state agencies do enforce state safety regulations against public and private fire departments. The citations can be sizable (even if the final settlement amount is substantially less), and the publicity concerning these citations can have a negative impact on fire levies, and the careers of the senior fire officials involved.

OSHA does not have a specific regulation on seat belts; instead OSHA relies on its Personal protective equipment regulation, 29 CFR 1926.28, to issue citations and fines against private employers for not enforcing seat belts. For example, OSHA issued a $77,000 citation against Anderson Columbia Company, Lake City, FL when an employee fell to his death from the back of a pickup truck while placing traffic warning signs on a roadway warning of pipeline installation ahead.

29 CR 1926.28(a) provides: "The employer is responsible for requiring the wearing of appropriate personal protective equipment in all operations where there is an exposure to hazardous conditions or where this part indicates the need for using such equipment to reduce the hazards to the employees."

Criminal Prosecutions: Increasingly, throughout the nation, prosecutors are bringing felony charges against individuals for allegedly causing the death of others. It is definitely possible that criminal charges could be brought against a Fire Department officer where that officer advises his crew members to disregard seat belt rules, and this direction leads to the death of a firefighter. Two recent examples of criminal prosecutions related to firefighter deaths are as follows.

On March 3, 2008, the Bronx, NY prosecutor brought charges against a building engineer, concerning the August 2006 death of Lt. Howard J. Carpluk, Jr. and Firefighter Michael C. Reilly, who were trapped in the basement of a "Mega 99" store. The store's rotting support columns gave way. The building engineer, Jose Vargas, had approved the plans to renovate the building, but allegedly did not conduct the required final inspection. He is being charged with failing to conduct this inspection, and also with perjury for lying to investigators after the deadly fire.

Another example, on Feb. 29, 2008, a federal judge in Spokane, WA granted the motion of former U.S. Forest Service crew boss, 47 year-old Ellreese Daniels, to delay his criminal trial until May 5, 2008. He is charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter and seven counts of making false statements to investigators, concerning the death of four firefighters killed in July 2001 in a wildfire in Okanogan Nation Forest in Washington.

Enforce the wearing of seat belts, and discipline both the firefighter and the officer on the apparatus for breach of your emergency driving SOG or policy. My suggestion is to get the statutes and administrative regulations in your state, and include them as an attachment to your emergency driving SOG.

If you need help finding these documents, call the law librarian at your local courthouse or law school. Mary Jenkins, Director & Law Librarian, Cincinnati Law Library Association, kindly located the following helpful examples of state regulations on seat belts. If your state does not have such a law or regulation, share the attached with your elected representatives.

Department of Consumer And Industry Services General; Industry Services General Industry Safety Standards Commission
Safety Standards
Part 74. Fire Fighting Construction and use of Equipment
Mich. Admin. Code R 408.17421 (2008): Fire apparatus generally.

Rule 17421. 1. Fire apparatus shall be able to stop within 30 feet after application of the brakes at 20 miles per hour. 2. Fire apparatus shall be equipped with all of the following items:

(a) Windshield wipers.

(b) Head, tail, stop, and backup lights and a backup alarm.

(c) Horn and siren.

(d) Slip-resistant steps, tailboard, and work platforms.

(e) Seat belts for all seated employees. Seat belts shall be used while the apparatus is in motion.

(f) If an employee is allowed by the employer to ride the apparatus in an unseated position while the apparatus is in motion, the employer shall provide for, and enforce the use of, a safety harness.

Title 803 Cabinet
Chapter 2. Occupational Safety and Health

803 KAR 2:015. (2007)General industry standards.