OSHA Law Update

A Hazard Communication

OSHA Means Business in Targeting the Health Care and Nursing Care Industries

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) recently intensified its scrutiny of the health care and nursing care industries. On June 25, 2015, the agency announced a new enforcement initiative targeting inpatient health care and nursing care facilities. But this increased scrutiny of the health care and nursing care industries does not end there—OSHA is spreading its enforcement reach to other types of health care entities.

Recently, OSHA cited LifeFleet LLC, an Ohio medical patient transportation company, for training shortfalls and bloodborne pathogen violations. OSHA alleged multiple violations, including several costly willful violations, and is seeking fines totaling nearly $236,000—a notably large amount. Typically, the fines associated with OSHA citations are very low, unless they are associated with fatalities. There were no fatalities in this case.

In discussing the magnitude of the fines against LifeFleet, OSHA’s Cleveland Area Office Director Howard Eberts said, “Failing to protect workers from pathogens that can cause life-threatening diseases is unacceptable. As a medical service provider, LifeFleet should be setting the standard in employee protection – not ignoring it.”

What does this mean to health care and nursing care employers? OSHA is targeting all health care and nursing care facilities, not just inpatient facilities. The agency is sending a clear message to the health care and nursing care industries in issuing citations carrying unusually heavy fines.

How to Prepare

Here are a few action steps that employers can take right now to prepare for an OSHA inspection:

  • Conduct an internal OSHA compliance audit with the assistance of knowledgeable counsel to maximize the basis for the assertion of attorney client privilege as to the audit as in furtherance of providing legal counsel on OSHA compliance. (Remember, if an internal audit is conducted without the aid of outside counsel, the audit results can be subpoenaed by OSHA and used as a guide to potential violations at the facility.) The cost of defending OSHA citations can easily be hundreds of thousands of dollars. The cost of conducting an internal audit and addressing hazards before an OSHA inspection is trivial by comparison.
  • Review all health and safety training programs. Ensure that all employees have been thoroughly trained—and have received refresher training, when appropriate—on all aspects of the facility’s health and safety policies and that they can demonstrate that they understood the training. It is advisable to conduct a quiz after each training session in order for employees to demonstrate their comprehension of the training and to keep quiz results and training attendee lists on file.
  • Consult with an OSHA attorney regarding preparations for an OSHA inspection. Most health care and nursing care employers have never experienced an OSHA inspection (LifeFleet, for example, had never been inspected before) and may not be aware of strategies that can be used to minimize work disruption during an inspection and reduce the likelihood of receiving an unwarranted citation.

OSHA’s New Option for Resolving Whistleblower Complaints: What Employers Need to Know

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OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of 22 separate statutes.  The number of retaliation claims filed under the various statutes has risen steadily each year and the cost of investigating them has placed a tremendous strain on OSHA’s fiscal and physical resources.  Searching for a way to reduce the costly and time consuming process of an investigation and litigation, OSHA conducted pilot Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) programs in two of its regions from October 2012 to September 2013.  The pilot programs were well received by employers and whistleblowers alike, allowing for quick resolutions of disputes without the need of enduring a lengthy and burdensome OSHA investigation.  These pilot programs were such a success that on August 19, 2015, OSHA published CPL 02-03-006, Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Processes for Whistleblower Protection Program, which affords all OSHA regions with the option of adopting an ADR program at the discretion of each Regional Administrator.

In what OSHA is calling its “early resolution” process, the parties to a whistleblower complaint agree to attempt to resolve the whistleblower complaint with the assistance of a neutral, confidential OSHA representative who will not be involved in the investigation if the ADR is unsuccessful.  The early resolution process can be elected either before a case has been assigned for an investigation or at any point during an ongoing investigation.  The investigation will be stayed while the parties pursue the ADR.  The goal of the program is to achieve a quick, voluntary resolution of a whistleblower dispute rather than undertaking an investigation to determine the validity of the complaint and potential statutory violations.  A settlement may be reached at any time after the filing of the complaint and prior to the issuance of the Secretary’s findings or the Secretary’s filing of a complaint in federal district court.  If the parties elect to pursue early resolution but fail to enter into a settlement agreement within a reasonable period of time, the case will be transferred to an OSHA whistleblower investigator to start or resume investigation of the complaint.

Parties in whistleblower cases also have the option of settling their whistleblower complaint independently or with the assistance of an investigator or other ADR service during the OSHA investigation.  So how do employers determine whether the early resolution process is right for them?  Employers should consider these core concepts:

  • The early resolution process is entirely voluntary. Both parties must mutually agree to participate, and either may choose to terminate the process and return the case to the investigatory process for any reason.
  • OSHA will assign a Regional ADR coordinator (RADRC) to assist the parties in resolving a whistleblower complaint by mutual agreement. RADRCs are completely neutral and have no decision-making authority. Although the RADRC may give the parties an objective view on the strengths and weaknesses of their positions, he or she may not offer judgment on the merits of the case.
  • OSHA demands that the parties participate in the early resolution process in good faith, treating one another and the RADRC with respect throughout the process. Parties must come to the process fully prepared to discuss resolution of the whistleblower complaint and have full authority to settle the dispute. If OSHA determines that one or both of the parties are not participating in the early resolution process in good faith, the RADRC may terminate the effort and return the case to investigators.
  • The early resolution process is confidential. The RADRC will not discuss the merits of the complaint or the content of the early resolution discussions with OSHA’s investigators. ADR case files will be kept separate from investigation files and their content is generally exempt from disclosure under FOIA. Keep in mind, however, that the terms of an OSHA whistleblower settlement agreement, whether agreed upon during the early resolution process or by other means, will be disclosed to OSHA and may be made public by OSHA in response to a FOIA request or otherwise.
  • This option may significantly reduce the cost of responding to a whistleblower complaint. An investigation may disrupt your business affecting productivity and can lead to full blown federal litigation. It costs nothing to attempt to agree upon a resolution that satisfies the parties. OSHA even offers early resolution conferences by telephone in the event that travel to attempt early resolution would be too costly or create hardship for either party.
  • And employers must also evaluate many of the same risks and benefits they would assess in considering ADR and settlement versus litigation generally: What are the risks and costs in litigating the case versus settling? What precedent could litigating the case create? How much time will litigating the case and possibly appealing the verdict consume versus the quick finality of reaching a settlement?

 

As Promised, OSHA Targets Health Care and Nursing Homes for Enforcement Actions

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As previously discussed, OSHA has been carefully scrutinizing the health care industry lately.  And on June 25, 2015, OSHA officially introduced a new compliance nightmare for the inpatient health care and nursing home industries by announcing the details of the agency’s new health care enforcement initiative in a memorandum from Dorothy Dougherty, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, to OSHA Regional Administrators and State Plans. The memorandum is entitled “Inspection Guidance for Inpatient Healthcare Settings” (“guidance memo”).

The guidance memo requires both federal OSHA Regional Offices and State Plans to evaluate the number of work-related injuries and illnesses at inpatient health care and nursing home facilities in their areas and to target those facilities for inspections.  Compliance officers are instructed to focus on five major hazards:

  • Musculoskeletal disorders (“MSDs”) relating to patient or resident handling
  • Workplace violence
  • Bloodborne pathogens
  • Tuberculosis
  • Slips, trips, and falls

OSHA also reminded compliance officers that they can and should expand the scope of the inspection when additional hazards come to their attention during the inspection. These hazards include, but are not limited to, exposures to multi-drug resistant organisms, such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (“MRSA”), and exposures to hazardous chemicals, such as sanitizers, disinfectants, anesthetic gases, and hazardous drugs.

Although there are no OSHA regulations applicable to several of these hazards, compliance officers are urged to rely upon the general duty clause, which enables OSHA to issue citations whenever it finds that an employer has failed to provide safe work and a safe work environment for its employees.  In fact, the agency went so far as to include sample general duty clause citation language in the guidance memo that compliance officers may reference in issuing citations related to MRSA, MSDs, workplace violence, and other unregulated hazards that they may identify in the workplace.

It is critical to note that OSHA includes a broad range of inpatient facilities in the list of potential targets.  Virtually any type of health care or nursing care facility that provides residential or inpatient services is at risk of an OSHA inspection—particularly if the employer has a high rate of work-related injuries and illnesses.

Employers operating inpatient care facilities should immediately take the following actions to prepare for inspections:

  • Conduct an internal OSHA compliance audit with the assistance of outside counsel— this audit is protected from disclosure by the attorney-client privilege. Audit reports prepared without the aid of outside counsel can be subpoenaed by OSHA and used as a guide to potential violations at the worksite.  Defending an OSHA citation can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  An audit, by comparison, costs a tiny fraction of that amount and can help you identify and resolve gaps in your health and safety programs, dramatically decreasing the likelihood that a citation will be issued if OSHA targets your workplace.  An added benefit of conducting an attorney-client privileged audit is the potential for a reduction in workers’ compensation claims.  When an employer addresses the gaps identified in a health and safety audit, it also usually experiences an enormous drop in workers’ compensation costs.
  • Read the guidance memo. This document identifies a host of other resources that compliance officers are to rely upon in conducting inspections of inpatient care facilities—all of which are publically accessible—essentially giving employers a road map of what compliance officers may identify as hazards in the workplace.
  • Consult with counsel regarding preparation for an OSHA inspection. Counsel can equip you with a host of strategies before OSHA ever sets foot at your workplace that will enable you to minimize work disruption during an inspection and greatly reduce the possibility of receiving a citation.
  • Watch Epstein Becker Green’s complimentary webinar entitled “Health Care in the Crosshairs: OSHA’s New Health Care Enforcement Initiative,” which provides substantial guidance on the health care enforcement initiative, how best to prepare for it, and the art of navigating an OSHA inspection.

Strategic planning is essential to successfully navigating any OSHA inspection, and inspections of inpatient care facilities are imminent.  Employers operating inpatient care facilities are well advised to contact counsel as soon as possible so that they are ready to demonstrate their commitment to employee health and safety when OSHA comes knocking.

OSHA’s Response to Compliance with the New Reporting Rules and What it Means to Employers

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Although OSHA’s new reporting rule has been in effect for almost seven months now, it has caused some major changes in the way that OSHA operates.  Since the new reporting rule went into effect on January 1, 2015, OSHA has received more than 5,000 reports of work-related deaths, inpatient hospitalizations, amputations, and losses of an eye.  As OSHA anticipated, compliance with the rule has focused the agency’s attention on industries and hazards that it had not focused on before.  For example, because of the unexpectedly high number of reports of amputations from supermarkets, OSHA issued a safety Fact Sheet last month focused on preventing cuts and amputations from food slicers and meat grinders.

Around 40 percent of the newly filed reports have prompted OSHA investigations.  Another 46 percent have resulted in what the agency refers to as a “rapid response investigation.”  In a rapid response investigation, OSHA contacts the reporting employer to learn more about the incident.  The agency often expects the employer to conduct its own investigation into the root cause of the incident, determine how to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future, and report these findings back to OSHA in about a week.

In cases where OSHA is dissatisfied with an employer’s response, such as reports that merely blame the victim, the agency may proceed to conduct its own inspection of the incident.  An important related issue has not yet been resolved by the agency—that is, whether statements made in the investigation report that will result from the employer’s root cause analysis will be used as admissions by OSHA in the event of an enforcement action.  Accordingly, now more than ever, it is vital for employers to understand how to conduct an effective root cause analysis and produce an effective investigation report that will help them prevent similar incidents from taking place in the future.

Root cause investigations are often conducted by an employee’s supervisor, but a more effective approach involves managers and employees working together, bringing a variety of perspectives to the investigation.  As noted above, employers should be wary of merely blaming the victim and should instead investigate the incident thoroughly, interviewing the injured employee and all witnesses and assuring them that they will not be retaliated against for speaking truthfully about the incident.  The scene of the incident should also be temporarily cordoned off to enable the investigation team to document the location and any objects that were involved in the incident.  When searching for the root cause of an incident, the investigator should always be asking “why?” For example, if a safety procedure was not followed, why was it not followed?  If inadequate training was involved, why had the problem not been identified before?  By asking enough whys, the root cause of the incident will eventually be revealed, enabling the employer to respond to the situation and minimize or eliminate the possibility of a similar incident occurring in the future.

When recording the findings of the root cause analysis, employers must be mindful to exclude hearsay or conjecture—the content of the report should be completely factual and should include as much of the following information as possible:

  • Background information, such as where and when the incident took place, who and what were involved, the victim’s role and actions, and everything learned from witness interviews
  • A full description of the incident, such as the sequence of events, the type of incident, any objects or machinery that were involved, and any unusual circumstances, such as adverse weather or equipment failure
  • An analysis of why the incident took place, based on everything that the employer discovered during the investigation
  • Recommended corrective actions that will prevent recurrences

By following these guidelines and ensuring that the recommended corrective actions are implemented, employers can improve employee safety and morale while reducing the risk that their investigation reports will result in an OSHA citation.

Health Care Industry: OSHA Is Quietly Gunning for You – Is Your Workplace Ready?

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On April 2, 2015, Thomas Galassi, Director of the Directorate of Enforcement for OSHA, sent a memorandum to all Regional Directors announcing that the agency’s National Emphasis Program on Nursing and Residential Care Facilities would be extended until replaced by updated guidance or removed by the agency.  Mr. Galassi went on to state that, because the health care industry reports more work-related injuries and illnesses than any other general industry,

the Agency will continue to use both enforcement and collaborative efforts to address hazards such as musculoskeletal disorders from lifting patients or residents, exposures to tuberculosis, bloodborne pathogens, workplace violence, and slips, trips and falls. We are advising you of the Agency’s intent to soon issue updated guidance that instructs OSHA offices to allocate enforcement and other resources to additional inpatient healthcare facilities, such as nursing homes and hospitals that have occupational illness and injury rates above the industry average.

Also on April 2, OSHA published its revised “Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Healthcare and Social Service Workers” (see related coverage).  Soon thereafter, on May 14, 2015, OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (“NIOSH”) released the Hospital Respiratory Protection Toolkit, providing detailed guidance for health care employers to use in an effort to protect employees from exposure to infectious diseases and other respiratory hazards.

Notably, both of those guidance documents include a preface reminding employers that the Occupational Safety and Health Act (“Act”) requires employers to comply with safety and health standards and regulations promulgated by OSHA and that, in addition, the Act’s General Duty Clause requires employers to provide their employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.  Employers should not take these statements lightly.

There is no workplace violence prevention standard. Although there is a respiratory standard, the guidance contained in the Hospital Respiratory Protection Toolkit includes requirements that exceed existing OSHA standards.  OSHA is sending a clear sign to health care employers that, if their workplace violence or respiratory protection programs are found wanting, the agency will issue citations under the General Duty Clause.  In fact, in the Hospital Respiratory Protection Toolkit, OSHA went so far as to state that OSHA requires health care employers to evaluate the workplace and expects hospitals to develop respiratory protection policies based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and other public health guidance.  Otherwise, “in the event of an OSHA compliance investigation, an employer’s failure to implement respirator use according to recognized and generally accepted good infection control practices and public health guidance could result in an OSHA citation.”

So what should health care employers be doing right now to prepare for OSHA’s intensely increased scrutiny?

  • Carefully review Epstein Becker Green’s OSHA Inspection Checklist to ensure that you are thoroughly prepared for an inspection.
  • Review the Healthcare Section of OSHA’s website, paying particular attention to the Standards/Enforcement tab, the new Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Healthcare and Social Service Workers, and the new Hospital Respiratory Protection Toolkit. If you are not already in compliance with the applicable standards and guidance, begin compliance efforts immediately.
  • Work with counsel to conduct an internal compliance audit of your facilities, particularly if any facilities have a particularly high rate of work-related injuries and illnesses (be sure to work with outside counsel in conducting such audits so that the resulting audit reports are protected from disclosure by the attorney-client privilege, otherwise OSHA may be able to subpoena the audit reports and use them to identify potential health and safety issues in the workplace).

The bottom line is that OSHA is coming. Accordingly, employers in the health care industry should act now to ensure that their employees are working in the safest possible conditions and that, when OSHA appears at their door, they can demonstrate their commitment to employee health and safety.

Simple Strategies for Keeping Workers Safe When Working Outside in the Heat

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Wood Cutter Takes Water BreakAs it gets hotter outside, employers should consider how best to protect their employees from work-related heat illness.  Thousands of workers fall victim to heat illness each year, and, tragically, many die from heat exposure at work.

Over the past several years, OSHA has significantly increased its focus on protecting employees from succumbing to heat illness.  Most recently, the agency has released a heat safety tool, available in both English and Spanish, which can be downloaded on an iPhone or Android device.  Employers can and should take advantage of this free app, which calculates the heat index for the worksite and displays a risk level to outdoor workers.  The app also provides a list of the measures that should be taken at that risk level to protect workers from developing heat illness.

Although all employers should be vigilant about protecting their employees from heat illness, employers whose employees spend most of the summer working outdoors (such as those in the construction, trade, transportation and utilities, agriculture, building and grounds maintenance, landscaping services, and support activities for oil and gas operations industries) should be particularly cautious.  Employers should have a heat illness prevention plan in place and ensure that their employees fully understand the dangers of heat illness and how to avoid it.

Although federal OSHA does not have a heat illness standard, the agency relies upon the general duty clause to issue citations for incidents involving heat illness.  Employers with worksites in California should be aware that Cal/OSHA does have comprehensive heat illness regulations in place, which have recently been enhanced, requiring employers to take many of the actions listed below—and then some—including maintaining a set of written procedures for complying with the state’s heat illness prevention standard.  Stricter regulations went into effect on May 1, 2015.

By taking just a few extra precautions, employers can significantly reduce the possibility of workers being affected by heat illness and demonstrate their commitment to worker safety.  Simple steps that every employer can take include:

  • implementing a period of acclimation into employees’ work schedules—gradually increasing the amount of time that they spend working in the heat, as well as the level of exertion;
  • making water readily available and encouraging employees to drink water at least every 15 minutes, even if they do not feel thirsty;
  • training employees on the signs of heat illness and how to respond to a heat illness emergency;
  • encouraging employees to wear a hat and light-colored clothing; and
  • encouraging employees to rest in the shade and cool down, as needed, and ensuring that they understand that they will not be reprimanded for taking such action.

Protect Workers From The Number One Cause of Workplace Deaths – Distracted Driving

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Distracted driving is the number one cause of workplace deaths in the United States.  OSHA has partnered with the National Safety Council to call employers’ attention to this issue and urge the adoption of safe driving policies.  Failure to adopt and enforce such policies in the workplace leads to tragic results and OSHA has made it perfectly clear that employers who do not take this issue seriously should expect OSHA citations.  On its distracted driving webpage, the agency has stated that employers “have a responsibility and legal obligation to have a clear, unequivocal, and enforced policy against texting while driving.”

But to truly protect your employees from the hazards of distracted driving, your policy should cover more than just texting.  A comprehensive policy should cover all employees, both handheld and hands-free devices, company vehicles, company cell phones and all work-related communications.  All employees should be forbidden to use cell phones, hands-free devices, and any other mobile electronics while operating a vehicle when:

  • the vehicle is owned, leased, or rented by the employer
  • a personal motor vehicle is used in connection with company business
  • the motor vehicle is on the employer’s property
  • the cell phone or mobile electronic device is owned or leased by the employer
  • the cell phone or mobile electronic device is used to conduct company business

Employers should strongly discourage distracted driving by incorporating written safe driving policies into employee handbooks, providing training on these policies during worker orientation, and providing annual refresher training.  Safe communication practices should be put in place such as established procedures, times, and places for drivers’ safe use of cell phones and other electronic devices for communicating with supervisors, customers, and others.  To the extent that the employer has any programs in place that could incentivize employees to use cell phones or other electronic devices while driving, they should be eliminated.

Finally, safe driving policies must be enforced – it is not enough simply to write a policy and provide employee training.  As we have all become so dependent on our cell phones and other mobile electronic devices, it is likely that some employees will resist or simply ignore these policies, but enforcement is necessary to truly improve employee safety.  Accordingly, employers should reprimand employees who violate safe driving policies and those reprimands should involve serious penalties, including, where appropriate, termination.  There is no way to protect employees from every hazard they may encounter on the road, but implementing a strong safe driving program will go a long way towards decreasing the likelihood of a workplace tragedy on the road.

 

OSHA’s Increased Emphasis on Protecting Health Care and Social Service Workers from Workplace Violence

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For many years, OSHA has stressed the need for enhanced workplace violence policies to protect health care and social service workers.  The agency released guidelines for workplace violence prevention in the health care and social services industries in both 1996 and 2004, recognizing that caregivers are at an increased risk of unpredictable, violent behavior from the very people whom they provide care to.  In spite of these efforts, violence in health care and social service workplaces continues to rise.  In 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported more than 23,000 serious injuries due to assault at work.  More than 70 percent of those assaults took place in health care or social service settings.  Health care and social service workers are almost four times more likely than the average private sector worker to be injured as a result of an assault.

Re-emphasizing its commitment to reducing this risk, OSHA published its revised Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Healthcare and Social Service Workers on April 2, 2015.  The revised guidelines are significantly more comprehensive than those released by the agency in the past, and they include a number of tools, such as a workplace violence prevention program checklist, to enable employers to more easily navigate and implement OSHA’s suggested strategies.

The new guidance calls for a five-part program consisting of:

  1. management commitment and worker participation—OSHA deems management responsible for controlling hazards by, among other things, urging all levels of management to become deeply involved in all aspects of the workplace violence prevention program, and worker participation should be required because workers can help identify and assess workplace hazards;
  1. worksite analysis and hazard identification—management and workers are called upon to work together to assess records, existing procedures, and operations for jobs, employee surveys, and workplace security analyses;
  1. hazard prevention and control—after the worksite analysis is complete, employers should take appropriate steps to prevent or control the identified hazards and periodically evaluate the effectiveness of the chosen controls and improve, expand, or update them, as needed;
  1. safety and health training—all workers (including contractors and temporary employees) should receive training on the workplace violence prevention program at least annually and, in particularly high-risk settings, as often as monthly or quarterly to effectively reach and inform all workers; and
  1. recordkeeping and program evaluation—OSHA logs of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses (OSHA Form 300), worker injury reports, information regarding patients with a history of violence, and other documents reflecting trends or patterns at the workplace should be studied and the effectiveness of the workplace violence prevention program should be frequently evaluated and improved, as necessary.

Although there is no formal OSHA standard regarding workplace violence, the agency has invested significant resources into providing health care and social service employers with an all-encompassing set of guidelines to enable these employers to create high-quality workplace violence prevention programs.  OSHA has already announced that it intends to increase enforcement efforts in the health care and social services industries in the coming year. If OSHA conducts an inspection and finds that an employer’s workplace violence prevention program is lacking, the agency could issue the employer a citation under the General Duty Clause for failing to provide workers with a safe and healthy work environment.

Accordingly, health care and social service employers are well advised to review OSHA’s new guidelines and to work closely with employees to develop a program appropriate for their worksites.  Taking this step will provide critically important protection for employees, increase employee engagement in safety and health efforts, and reduce the possibility of receiving a citation for an inadequate workplace violence prevention program.

Five Steps Toward Boosting Employee Safety and Avoiding OSHA Citations

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I recently authored Epstein Becker Green’s March issue of Take 5 in which I outline actionable steps that employers can take to improve safety and avoid costly OSHA citations. Take 5 banner

Following is an excerpt:

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) was created by Congress to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for employees. OSHA establishes standards and provides training and compliance assistance. It also enforces its standards with investigations and citations.

Although it’s impossible for employers to mitigate against every conceivable hazard in the workplace, there are five critical steps that every employer should take to improve safety in the workplace—and avoid costly OSHA citations. Read on for the steps:

  1. Conduct an Internal Safety and Health Audit Under Attorney-Client Privilege
  2. Create a Strong Safety Culture
  3. Ensure That Safety and Health Documentation Is Current and Well Communicated
  4. Train Employees in Safety and Health, Regularly and Comprehensively
  5. Protect Contractors and Temporary Workers, Too

Click here to read the full Take 5 online.

OSHA’s Appropriations Efforts Signal Increased Enforcement and Higher Penalties in 2015

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President Obama’s recent budget proposal to Congress includes a proposed $592.1 million budget for OSHA this fiscal year — a 7 percent increase from fiscal 2015.  Although gaining approval of the proposal will surely be an uphill battle, which may be insurmountable in light of opposition from Republican lawmakers who oversee the appropriations process, the content of OSHA’s budget justification provides strong signals of its agenda for the coming year.

First, OSHA seeks to add 90 full-time positions to the agency for fiscal 2016.  Sixty of the new positions would be assigned to enforcement activities – forty of the new enforcement employees would be assigned to inspect the anticipated 50,000 – 75,000 new injury and hospitalization reports the agency expects to receive in fiscal 2016 in response to new reporting requirements that took effect on January 1, 2015 (the new reporting regime requires employers to report to OSHA within 24 hours any work-related hospital admissions, amputations, or eye losses).  The other twenty enforcement employees would be assigned to high hazard, complex inspections, such as inspections of worksites where the Process Safety Management standard applies or musculoskeletal disorders may be at issue.  OSHA states that without this increase in manpower, it will be forced to eliminate many planned inspections of high hazard workplaces, shifting its inspection priorities to responding to injury and hospitalization reports.

Next OSHA urged Congress to increase the statutory civil penalties for workplace health and safety violations.  The OSH Act is one of only four statutes not covered by the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act, which includes a mechanism to increase fixed penalties to keep pace with inflation.  Without the benefit of this mechanism, OSHA has only been able to increase its civil monetary penalties once in the last forty years.  Although OSHA was not explicit in its budget justification, it appears the agency seeks funding for its efforts to increase the monetary civil penalties that the agency can impose in its citations in an effort to increase their deterrent effect.

Even if OSHA receives none of the additional funding it seeks, employers should take note of the clear signals that OSHA has given employers of its intentions in its budget justification:

  • OSHA fully intends to respond to the thousands of injuries it expects will be reported in response to the new recordkeeping rule.  Employers must make certain that their safety and human resources professionals know when and how to appropriately report injuries to OSHA and should expect OSHA to act upon these reports.
  • OSHA is likely to impose greater penalties, even in the absence of an increase to the statutory penalties currently available to the agency.  OSHA inspectors do not consistently impose the maximum penalties available to them when issuing citations under the current penalty scheme.  Having clearly expressed its dissatisfaction with the deterrent effect of its penalties, OSHA will likely urge its compliance officers to impose the highest possible penalties when issuing citations going forward.
  • High hazard workplaces remain a top priority for OSHA.  The agency will, to the extent possible, continue to deploy its inspectors to businesses with high injury and illness rates, worksites subject to the Process Safety Management standard, and worksites presenting musculoskeletal issues.

OSHA has been very aggressive in its enforcement efforts and in seeking large penalties over the last several months.  The initiatives it has outlined in its budget justification signal that this will not change, and in fact, will become more intense in coming months.  Employers are well-advised to learn their rights and best practices for preparing for an OSHA Inspection.  Moreover, employers with worksites that present any of the high hazard risks outlined above should seriously consider engaging counsel to conduct an attorney-client privileged OSHA compliance audit.  The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission has held that compliance audit reports created by third party experts are protected from disclosure to OSHA when they are conducted to aid counsel in providing compliance advice.  By conducting such an audit, employers can assess for themselves whether they should be concerned when OSHA comes knocking and if so, improve safety practices and equipment on their own initiative.  Such actions demonstrate an employer’s commitment to safety, while protecting against the ominous possibility of OSHA using its internal audit report as a guide to potential health and safety issues in the workplace.