Conn Volunteer Fire Companies Battle OSHA

A number of volunteer fire companies in Connecticut are working to block the passage of legislation that would bring them under the jurisdiction of CONN-OSHA.

The legislation is aimed at reversing a Connecticut Supreme Court ruling issued in 2011. That ruling, Mayfield v. Goshen Volunteer Fire Company, 301 Conn. 739, 22 A.3d 1251 (Conn. 2011), declared that volunteer fire companies are exempt from state OSHA regulation because they are not political subdivisions.

The Goshen case created an anomaly for volunteer fire companies in Connecticut. They are exempt from federal OSHA jurisdiction because are quasi-public entities due to their fulfilling a public function and use of tax-payer funds. The Goshen ruling made them exempt from state OSHA regulation as well. It thus creates a situation where municipal fire departments in Connecticut (career, combination and volunteer) have to comply with OSHA but volunteer fire companies do not.

The linked article does a pretty good job of explaining a complex issue: the interplay between state and federal OSHA, and the difference between the three types of states. It is worth explaining here as well.

  • Approved plan states: the state enforces OSHA in both the public and private sectors. The state must agree to enforce federal OSHA regulations/standards in the way that federal OSHA requires. In exchange the federal OSHA underwrites up to 50% of the costs AND the state gets to keep the fine money.
  • Non-approved plan states: federal OSHA has jurisdiction over the private sector employers and the state may or may not enforce OSHA regulations against public sector employers, but if the state does enforce OSHA regulations against public sector employers they do not do it in a way that meets the requirements of federal OSHA
  • Public sector only approved plan states: states like Connecticut where federal OSHA has jurisdiction over private sector employers and the state enforces OSHA against public sector entities in a way that meets OSHA’s requirements.

Approved plan states and public sector only approved plan states are the states most likely to cite and fine fire departments that fail to comply with OSHA regulations. The enforcement mechanisms used by most non-approved plan states vary widely but do not usually result in penalties.

However, the article is somewhat misleading in an important repect. It implies that the Goshen ruling applies to “virtually all” volunteers in the state and that the volunteers’ status as unpaid is somehow relevant to the decision.  It is not. The key point of the Goshen ruling was that a volunteer fire company as an employer is not a political subdivision and thus is exempt from CONN-OSHA’s jurisdiction. In the court’s words (with some paraphrasing in brackets):

The fire company plainly does not fall within … [the] core definition [of “the state and any political subdivision thereof….”]. Indeed, the law governing nonstock corporations provides that such corporations " shall not include towns, cities, boroughs or any municipal corporation or department thereof." General Statutes § 33-1002(8).

Hence CONN-OSHA lacks jurisdiction over safety issues in volunteer fire companies whether they relate to paid employees or volunteers. If the new law passes, if will become effective October 1, 2013. Here is more on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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