Since OSHA’s revised fatality and severe injury reporting rule went into effect on January 1, 2015 (see related story), employers have been deeply concerned that the agency would use information contained in Rapid Response Investigation Reports (RRIs) — required by OSHA in response to approximately 50% of the reports made this year — as the basis for issuing citations and fines.  This concern stems from the fact that when OSHA finds an employer’s RRI unsatisfactory, such as where the employer merely blames the victim or fails to provide what the agency determines is an adequate plan to address identified hazards, OSHA may determine that an inspection is in order.

Late last week, in an interview with Business Insurance Magazine, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, Dr. David Michaels, clarified that OSHA has never used information contained in a RRI to justify a citation or fine and it never will.  Dr. Michaels emphasized OSHA’s goal that employers feel confident that they can communicate openly with OSHA without repercussions, and that the agency is developing an official policy providing assurance that RRI information will not be used in issuing citations.  Rather, OSHA explained, if the agency chooses to inspect an employer’s workplace in relation to a RRI that the employer submitted, OSHA will use information gathered during the inspection, rather than information included in the RRI, to determine whether citations should be issued.

This move may have been motivated in part by OSHA’s concern that employers are underreporting injuries that should have been reported under the new rule.  The rule requires all employers to notify OSHA when an employee is killed on the job or suffers a work-related hospitalization, amputation, or loss of an eye.  A fatality must be reported within 8 hours.  An in-patient hospitalization, amputation, or eye loss must be reported within 24 hours.  OSHA anticipates receiving approximately 12,000 reports under the new rule by the end of the year, far less than agency officials believe should have been filed.  Issuing an official policy reassuring employers that submission of incident information in RRIs will not result in citations and fines could encourage more employers to come into compliance with the new reporting rule.

One of the featured stories on Employment Law This Week – Epstein Becker Green’s new video program – is Dollar Tree’s $825,000 fine for OSHA violations.

Retail store Dollar Tree has agreed to a hefty fine as well as continual monitoring of its stores across the US. A third-party monitor will conduct audits on 50 stores over the next two years. This settles a wide range of complaints arising from 13 different OSHA inspections. The agency is increasingly using this tactic of issuing repeat citations for the same violations at different company worksites. This could have a much bigger impact beginning next year, when OSHA fines are set to rise about 80 percent.

See below to view the episode and read Valerie Butera’s recent post on this topic.

Valerie ButeraOSHA has employed many creative strategies to maximize its enforcement efforts during the Obama administration.  One such tactic involves scrutinizing employers with multiple worksites (retailers are a particularly easy target), sending compliance officers to inspect one of the worksites, issuing citations, and then visiting the employer’s other worksites, identifying the same problems found in the first worksite inspected, and issuing repeat citations to the employer based on the citation issued at the original worksite.  This approach gives OSHA significant bang for its buck, not only creating the opportunity to issue more citations by inspecting multiple facilities, but also making it possible for the agency to issue costly repeat citations, which carry fines as much as ten times higher than the current limit on citations classified as serious.

This is what happened to Dollar Tree Stores Inc. (Dollar Tree), which recently entered into a corporate-wide settlement agreement with OSHA to resolve citations arising from 13 different inspections – many involving blocked emergency exits, obstructed access to exit routes, electrical equipment, and improper storage of merchandise.  The settlement applies to some 2,400 Dollar Tree stores throughout the United States subject to regulation by Federal OSHA, but state plans having Dollar Tree stores located in their jurisdiction have been strongly encouraged to adopt the parameters of the settlement agreement as well.

Dollar Tree must pay $825,000 in fines to resolve the citations, but that is just the beginning.  In addition, the retailer must provide immediate safety training in its stores in a manner that all employees are able to comprehend, abate the issues identified in the inspections as quickly as possible, issue a newsletter regarding health and safety issues to its employees at least quarterly, submit to multiple safety audits at stores selected by OSHA, and quickly address any issues identified in the audits.

Dollar Tree must also put a number of additional administrative and engineering controls in place, but what is perhaps the most onerous element of the agreement is that it requires the employer to adopt a safety and health program focusing on the core elements included in OSHA’s Safety and Health Program Management Guidelines (Guidelines).  The Guidelines were originally published in 1989, but major revisions have recently been published and OSHA is welcoming comments on the new version through February 15, 2016.

Dollar Tree must design a program that focuses on the core elements set forth in the 1989 Guidelines, as the revised version has not yet been finalized.  Specifically, the retailer must: (1) demonstrate its commitment to workplace health and safety; (2) involve employees in the safety and health program; (3) identify health and safety hazards; (4) control health and safety hazards; (5) provide education and training for all employees related to the safety and health program; and (6) evaluate the safety and health program.  Essentially, the settlement agreement requires the employer to create a culture of safety throughout the organization.  Although Dollar Tree is required to create a program addressing all of these elements, the Guidelines are not prescriptive.  OSHA recognizes that every business is different and offers a non-exhaustive list of possibilities that employers could choose from in creating a safety and health program that comports with every element of the Guidelines.

Employers should expect OSHA to more frequently demand the incorporation of the Guidelines in future settlement agreements.  The agency has publically announced that adoption of the Guidelines and the creation of a safety culture is a top priority.

So what actions can employers take now?

  • If OSHA has already issued repeat citations to your organization for alleged violations at multiple locations, consider discussing with counsel whether working toward achieving a corporate-wide or regional settlement is a good option for your business. If, as anticipated, OSHA raises fines by about 80% this year (see related story), and your business continues to accumulate citations, those citations could become increasingly more costly in the coming months and could be far more difficult to settle as OSHA will have increased bargaining power once the fines are raised.
  • Review the proposed revisions to the Guidelines and submit comments regarding their strengths, weaknesses, and potential impact on your business.
  • Review your organization’s safety and health programs and consider taking proactive measures to create a program that includes the elements of the guidelines. Although an initial administrative and financial investment will likely be required, creating a safety culture usually pays dividends — improving worker safety and morale, decreasing workers’ compensation costs, and decreasing the possibility of receiving OSHA citations.

As our regular readers know, I was recently interviewed on our firm’s new video program, Employment Law This Week.  The show has now released “bonus footage” from that episode – see below!

In the interview, I elaborate on my recent post, “Employers Beware: OSHA Fines Are on the Rise for the First Time in Twenty-Five Years.”

Thanks for watching – I’d love to know if you have any questions. (And what you think about these videos!)

 

Employment Law This Week – Epstein Becker Green’s new video program – has an interview with attorney Valerie Butera, editor of this blog, on OSHA’s first fine increases in 25 years.

Under a new bipartisan budget bill, OSHA civil penalties will rise next year to reflect the difference between the Consumer Price Index in 1990 and in 2015 – an increase of as much as 82%. After this “catch up” adjustment, the fines will keep pace with inflation moving forward. Valerie describes how employers can boost their safety programs and avoid OSHA citations.

See below to view the episode and read Valerie’s recent blog post “Employers Beware: OSHA Fines Are on the Rise for the First Time in Twenty-Five Years”

 

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.

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.

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.

Valerie ButeraRetailers, get ready for OSHA’s revised recordkeeping and reporting rules, effective January 1, 2015.

As I note in my Act Now Advisory—“What Do OSHA’s Revised Recordkeeping and Reporting Rules Really Mean for Retailers?”—several additional retail industries will be required to keep records of serious occupational injuries and illnesses, and several are no longer subject to the rules. The new reporting requirements apply to all retailers, even those included in the exempt list.

See the advisory for more information – below is an excerpt of my tips for retail employers:

  • Train your safety and human resource professionals and your managers on the new reporting requirements.  Again, all retailers must promptly report to OSHA any fatalities, amputations, loss of eye incidents, or in-patient hospitalizations.
  • Be aware that you can report to OSHA by:
    1. Calling OSHA’s free and confidential number: 1-800-321-OSHA (6742)
    2. Calling your closest Area Office during normal business hours
    3. Using the new online form that will soon be available on OSHA’s website
  • If you have retail establishments in one or more of the jurisdictions with a state plan, contact the state plan’s office to determine when you must comply with the rule and if the state plans’ reporting rules have additional requirements.  OSHA has encouraged state plans to require compliance by January 1 but recognizes that not all plans will be able to do so.
  • Contact counsel for advice on how to best navigate an OSHA inspection to ensure your preparedness should OSHA decide to investigate the circumstances leading to a reportable injury or illness.
  • To the extent that any of these newly reportable incidents have taken place at any of your retail establishments in the past, review the details of the incident and audit that facility and others that you believe may pose safety concerns.  Identify safety hazards and address any possible health or safety hazards that you discover.
  • If you are among the newly identified retail industries required to complete OSHA’s injury and illness recordkeeping, seek assistance from counsel in navigating these very complex requirements.  Ensure that safety and human resource professionals in your organization are properly trained and fully understand how and when to record an occupational illness or injury in your OSHA logs.
  • Retailers that have already been subject to the recordkeeping standard should review their logs to spot potential trouble spots, and provide refresher training to safety and human resource professionals in order to help ensure full compliance with the rules.

See below for a recording of my recent webinar, “OSHA Forecast: Developments to Watch in 2015 and Beyond.”

As I discuss, in 2015, many more industries will for the first time be required by OSHA to record injuries and illnesses in the OSHA 300 Injury and Illness Recordkeeping log. The reporting of severe injuries or illnesses is also changing, and we anticipate a greater focus on enforcements and inspections.

Topics include:

  • Where we are now and the direction of OSHA in 2015
  • Recording and recordkeeping requirements
  • Whistleblowing and its impact on your business
  • Preparing for increased OSHA inspections of incidents
  • Rulemaking and potential changes in current programs
  • Ebola and other infectious diseases

The video is also available on Epstein Becker Green’s Youtube channelclick here to download the slides.