Our colleague Steven M. Swirsky, a Member of the Firm at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Management Memo blog that will be of interest to many of our readers: “OSHA Withdraws ‘Fairfax Memo’ – Union Representatives May No Longer Participate in Work Place Safety Walkarounds at Non-Union Facilities.”

Following is an excerpt:

On April 25, 2017, Dorothy Dougherty, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) and Thomas Galassi, Director of OSHA’s Directorate of Enforcement Programs, issued a Memorandum to the agency’s Regional Administrators notifying them of the withdrawal of its previous guidance, commonly referred to as the Fairfax Memorandum, permitting “workers at a worksite without a collective bargaining agreement” to designate “a person affiliated with a union or community organization to act on their behalf as a walkaround representative” during an OSHA workplace investigation. …

Read the full post here.

A United States District Court in Texas has refused to dismiss a law suit challenging OSHA’s practice of allowing union representatives and organizers to serve as “employee representatives” in inspections of non-union worksites. If the Court ultimately sustains the plaintiff’s claims, unions will lose another often valuable organizing tool that has provided them with visibility and access to employees in connection with organizing campaigns.

The National Federation of Independent Business (‘NFIB”) filed suit to challenge an OSHA Standard Interpretation Letter (the “Letter”), which sets forth the agency’s position that an employee of a union that does not represent the workers at the site may accompany the OSHA representative conducting an inspection. The Federation argued on behalf of itself and one of its members because OSHA had permitted a representative of the Service Employees International Union (“SEIU”) to accompany him despite the fact the SEIU did not represent the workers at the facility. The lawsuit asserts that in allowing this, OSHA had violated its own rules and gave the union rights that it did not have under the law. In the Letter, issued in February 2013, OSHA gave a new definition of “reasonably necessary,” which supported its holding, for the first time, that a third party’s presence would be deemed “reasonably necessary,” if OSHA concluded that the presence of the third party “will make a positive contribution” to an effective inspection. The NFIB’s lawsuit contradicted both the OSHA statute itself and OSHA regulations issued in 1971 following formal rulemaking.

While OSHA asked the Court to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that the NFIB lacked standing to bring the lawsuit because it could not demonstrate that it had been harmed, and that the lawsuit was procedurally flawed for a number of other reasons as well, Judge Sidney A. Fitzwater denied the U.S. Department of Labor’s Motion to Dismiss, finding that “NFIB as stated a claim upon which relief can be granted,” and that “the Letter flatly contradicts a prior legislative rule as to whether the employee representative” in such a walk-around inspection “must himself be an employee.”

The rule Judge Fitzwater referred to, 29 U.S.C Section 1903.8(c) contained OSHA’s policies for what are referred to as “safety walk-arounds,” which are on site workplace inspections. The Letter gives employees in the workplace the right to have a representative present during such an inspection. OSHA’s own rules make clear that such “authorized representative(s) shall be an employee(s) of the employer,” but that when “good cause is shown why accompaniment by a third party who is not an employee of the employer (such as an industrial hygienist or a safety engineer) is reasonably necessary to the conduct of an effective and thorough physical inspection of the workplace, such third party may accompany the Compliance Safety and Health Officer during the inspection.” (emphasis added)

If the ultimate outcome of the case, which seems likely, is a finding that OSHA does not have the authority to permit union representatives to participate in OSHA inspections of workplaces where they do not represent the workers, the effect would be to deny unions a potentially potent tool for organizing. As Judge Fitzwater described in his Memorandum and Order, unions such as the UAW in its ongoing organizing campaign at Nissan in Tennessee have come to rely upon participation in OSHA inspections as a valuable tool.

While it is too soon to say whether the Department of Labor will continue to defend the 2013 Letter and the position that OSHA has the right to permit union representatives to participate in safety and health inspections, Judge Fitzwater’s denial of the motion to dismiss raises serious doubt as to the long term viability of OSHA’s position.

On January 13, 2017, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) issued non-binding recommendations to aid employers with creating new or improving existing workplace anti-retaliation programs.  OSHA’s recommendations apply to all public and private employers that are subject to the 22 whistleblower protection statutes that OSHA enforces.[1]

Under the various federal whistleblowing protection statutes, employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who report or raise concerns about workplace health and safety issues. OSHA encourages employers to create and maintain an effective workplace anti-retaliation program so they will not only comply with federal whistleblowing protection laws, but also create a workplace culture that prevents retaliation, improves employee morale and protects employers and members of the public from harm.

According to OSHA, an effective anti-retaliation program must: (1) prevent retaliation and address retaliation complaints; and (2) receive and respond appropriately to employee compliance concerns. OSHA cautions employers that an anti-retaliation program must not discourage or prevent employees from exercising their rights to report violations or file complaints about hazardous workplace conditions or potential violations of the law with OSHA or any other government agency.

OSHA recommends that an effective anti-retaliation program should include the following five key components:

  • Management leadership, commitment, and accountability
  • System for listening to and resolving employees’ safety and compliance concerns
  • System for receiving and responding to reports of retaliation
  • Anti-retaliation training for employees and managers
  • Program oversight

OSHA discusses each of these five key components in detail and offers helpful tips on how to incorporate them into an anti-retaliation program. Employers would be wise to compare their anti-retaliation program with OSHA’s recommendations to determine if any adjustments should be made to their program.

[1] The 22 whistleblowing protection statutes that OSHA enforces are listed at the end of the guidance.

Federal Guidance for Employers and Workers on Exposure to Zika VirusThe Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health issued interim guidance on April 10, 2016, for protecting outdoor workers who may be exposed on the job to mosquitos and healthcare and laboratory workers exposed on the job to body fluids of individuals infected with Zika virus.  Although the guidance is not a standard or regulation, employers should be mindful that OSHA can always issue citations under the General Duty Clause (OSHA’s catch all provision requiring all employers to provide employees with safe workplaces and safe work) should the agency find that an employer did not take sufficient precautions to protect employees from the virus.

Employers with outdoor workers, including seasonal retail lawn and garden workers in areas affected by the Zika, and workers in the healthcare industry should consult the guidance for information about the risk of exposure and effective worker protections.