Wildland Firefighter LODD Prompts OSHA General Duty Citations

The death of a wildland firefighter in 2012 has prompted two administrative actions by OSHA, one a $14,000 citation against the Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protective Association (CPTPA), and the other a Notice of Unsafe or Unhealthful Working Conditions issued to the U.S. Forest Service.

Firefighter Anne Veseth, 20, was killed on August 12, 2012 while battling the Steep Corner Fire near Orofino, Idaho. She was struck in the head by a falling tree and died instantly. Veseth was a college student working her second summer as a seasonal firefighter for the US Forest Service.

The Steep Corner Fire was being managed by CPTPA, but being fought through an interagency effort that included the US Forest Service. According to the Steep Corner Fire Serious Accident Investigation Report issued by the US Forest Service, CPTPA is a private sector entity described as follows: “Idaho law allows forest landowners to form timber protective associations to provide wildfire protection on their land. Timber protective associations are subject to rules established by the state. Each year, the State Forester certifies, and the State Board of Land Commissioners confirms, their qualifications to provide adequate protection. The associations’ objectives are to stop fires while small through quick and effective initial attack.”

The Serious Accident Investigation (SAI) report states: “After considerable review of the incident, including the leadership, qualifications, interagency cooperation, fuels, weather, incident management organization, and local policies, the SAI Team concluded that the judgments and decisions of the firefighters involved in the Steep Corner Fire were appropriate. Firefighters performed within the leaders’ intent and scope of duty, as defined by their respective organizations. The Team did not find any reckless actions or violations of policy or protocol.”

OSHA’s investigation into Veseth’s death reached a different conclusion, finding that both the US Forest Service and CPTPA violated the general duty clause. The general duty clause is an OSHA requirement that employers provide employees with a workplace that is “free from recognized hazards”.

While employers are expected to comply with all OSHA standards, the general duty requirement is a bit more complicated. Employers are required to take affirmative steps to mitigate recognized hazards even if those steps are not specifically mandated by an existing OSHA standard. This would include mitigating hazards that are recognized in the applicable industry as posing a safety concern to employees.

The CPTPA citation imposed $14,000 in fines for three related issues, each considered by OSHA to be serious general duty clause violations.

  • The first citation faulted CPTPA for not ensuring a safe working environment by allowing 8 of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders for wildland fires to be violated, and for failing to mitigate 11 of the 18 Watch Out Situations. A $4,900 penalty was assessed.
  • The second violation alleged that employees were exposed to being struck by “hazard trees” while constructing fire line, a recognized hazard that was not mitigated. It also carried a $4,900 penalty.
  • The third violation alleged that firefighters constructing the fire line did not have fire shelters readily available, and that personnel constructing the fire line were wearing denim and work pants not rated as fire resistant. The associated penalty for these violations was $4,200.

OSHA also issued a Notice of Unsafe or Unhealthful Working Conditions to the US Forest Service, citing:

  • one serious violation for violating 7 of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and not mitigating 9 of the 18 Watch Out Situations; and
  • a second charge characterized as a “Repeat – Serious” violation for allowing employees to work in a location that exposed them to “recognized hazards …  likely to cause death or serious physical harm from falling hazard trees”.

Here is the OSHA citation for CPTPA: OSHA_CPTPA_Citation

Here is the OSHA Notice to the US Forest Service: OSHA_USFS_notice1

Here is the SAI report: Steep-Corner-Fatality-SAI

Incidentally, the SAI report is a good read even for structural firefighters. It confirms the widely reported account that the Montana based Flathead Hotshots refused to fight the Steep Corner Fire citing concerns over unsafe operations that their supervisors observed when they arrived. Among the concerns noted were: “communications, tactics, and hazard mitigation. …the need for better radio communications and professional fallers for hazard tree removal. They also question[ed] the gaps in the fireline as well as the lack of medevac sites and a medical plan.” The Flathead Hotshots informed the Steep Corner IC of their concerns and their decision to refrain from engaging in the firefight one day prior to Anne Veseth’s death.

The reply from CPTPA: “We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got.”

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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