International Nutrition has moved quickly to fight allegations that it committed a “willful” violation of federal worker safety law leading to the Jan. 20 plant collapse that killed two of its employees.
The Omaha manufacturer of livestock feed supplements notified the Occupational Health and Safety Administration that it will contest all citations and penalties proposed by OSHA, the firm’s attorney said Tuesday. The company’s response came four days into a 15-working-day limit.
Now the case will move to an independent federal agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, where it can be heard by an administrative law judge and later reviewed by commissioners. Decisions of the judge and commission can be challenged in a federal appeals court.
It could be nine months before an administrative law hearing takes place, and two to four years before the case is resolved, according to local attorneys who handle OSHA cases.
A settlement is a likely outcome of the case, said Randy Stevenson, an attorney with Baird Holm who is not involved in the case. Stevenson said it will be tough for OSHA to prove the “willful” violation.
International Nutrition is contesting all of OSHA’s allegations, a total of 13 safety violations and fines of more than $120,000. The firm is also contesting August deadlines for fixing safety violations. The plant, at 7706 I Plaza, is being demolished and the company plans to rebuild.
In arguing a case before a judge or in trying to reach a settlement, a firm in International Nutrition’s position typically would be negotiating to have its “willful” citation reduced to a “severe” violation, said Ken Wentz, attorney with Jackson Lewis who is not involved in the case.
The “willful” violation in this fatality case has, for now, placed the firm in OSHA’s severe violator enforcement program, which brings stricter oversight. A willful violation also brings the possibility of heightened sanctions in the future.
Wentz said the firm might try to show that it had no knowledge that the bins were overloaded or could have caused the collapse, or, if it’s the case, that the overloading was the result of employees disobeying company policies on filling the bins.
OSHA said the company, in the year before the collapse, started storing additional limestone in rooftop bins without determining how much weight a support structure could hold. Attorney Pat Barrett said company officials did not know about any condition that would have caused the collapse.
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