Key Takeaways

- A company’s safety-related documents may have great impact beyond the organizational context, especially in post-incident legal proceedings.

- The admissibility of a safety document in a court proceeding depends on many factors such as relevance, whether the document includes statements by people other than the author, and how damaging the document may be to a party in the case.

- Safety professionals have the capacity to, and should, think strategically about how documents they produce may affect their company in future legal proceedings.

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Safety issues often lead to legal proceedings. For example, an injured employee may file a workers’ compensation claim that is ultimately litigated before a workers’ compensation commission and may result in a later appeal to a state court. An injured employee may sue an employer in state or federal court for gross negligence and may also sue the manufacturer of a product that contributed to the injury. An employer may be cited by OSHA and litigate the citation before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC). In any of these proceedings, each side would present evidence such as training materials, safety policies and incident reports, which are prepared by safety professionals.

It is not uncommon to hear safety professionals refer to a document as a “legal document.” This term often comes up in the context of training acknowledgments or a safety task assessment. However, the term “legal document” has no real significance. In fact, one might argue that all documents are legal documents because any document that meets the requirements for admissibility in a court proceeding may have significant legal impact.

This article strives to briefly explore the extent to which documents and other evidence pertaining to safety may be used in legal proceedings, for what purposes and under what circumstances. Additionally, this article seeks to clarify a somewhat complex subject in a way that will assist safety professionals in thinking strategically about how documents they author or maintain may affect their companies from a legal standpoint. The federal rules of evidence will primarily be used in this article. States have their own evidentiary rules, but many have adopted the federal rules in one form or another. The author will not necessarily identify whether the federal or a state’s rules are being applied in legal proceedings discussed in this article.

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