Severe Violator Enforcement Program

On January 1, 2015, OSHA rolled out its Severe Injury Reporting Program, requiring all employers to report to OSHA within 24 hours any work-related amputations, inpatient hospitalizations, or loss of an eye.  The long standing requirement to report work-related fatalities to OSHA within 8 hours also remains in place.

According to a report issued by OSHA on January 17, 2016 evaluating the impact of the new reporting requirements, before the requirements were established, compliance officers were often dispatched to inspect a fatality in the workplace, only to discover a history of serious injuries had taken place there in the past, unbeknownst to OSHA.  The new reporting requirements were intended to enable the agency to better target enforcement efforts and engage more high-hazard employers in identifying and eliminating serious hazards.  “In case after case, the prompt reporting of worker injuries has created opportunities for us to work with employers we wouldn’t have had contact with otherwise,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels, who authored the report.  “The result is safer workplaces for thousands of workers.”

Making a severe injury or fatality report to OSHA does not necessarily result in a visit from compliance officers.  Rather, in 62% of the over 10,000 reports OSHA received this year, employers were instructed to investigate the incident themselves and produce to the agency a Rapid Response Investigation report in which the employer explains the root cause(s) of the incident that resulted in the severe injury and what the employer has done or plans to do to address the hazard(s) it has discovered.  OSHA intends to continue this practice, as it has proven effective, and is an efficient use of OSHA’s limited resources.

Although 10,000 severe injury reports in the first year (translating into about 30 fatalities or serious injuries per week) may seem like a large number, OSHA says it strongly believes that a substantial number of injuries that should have been reported were not.  The agency reached this conclusion by looking at a number of different factors including the number of injury claims submitted to state workers’ compensation programs, which indicated that employers may be underreporting to OSHA at a rate of over 50%.

Most of the reports that OSHA received this year were from large employers so OSHA believes the underreporting is caused by lack of awareness of the rule among small and mid-sized employers.  The agency intends to address this issue with a major outreach campaign this year which will be accomplished through efforts with insurers, first responders, and business organizations, among others.

There is also a concern that some employers are well aware of the rule but perceive the cost of not reporting as too low to be concerned about it.  OSHA warns in its report that with the new reporting requirements now in their second year, employers who have intentionally failed to report are far more likely to receive citations carrying penalties of up to $7,000 for failure to report, and those penalties will increase by approximately 80% when OSHA’s penalties are adjusted later this year.

On June 10, 2014, Epstein Becker Green’s national OSHA Practice Group presented a webinar regarding OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP). The SVEP is an OSHA enforcement program intended by OSHA to direct its enforcement resources at employers whom OSHA believes are “indifferent to their OSH Act obligations.”

The webinar covered:

  • What the SVEP is;
  • How and when employers “qualify” into it;
  • What the consequences are for doing so;
  • Interesting data and trends about the SVEP; and
  • Tips to help employers avoid this fate.

This webinar was the second part in a five-part OSHA webinar series for employers facing the daunting task of complying with OSHA’s numerous federal and state occupational safety and health standards and regulations.  Read more about the webinar series, or click here to register for the remaining briefings.

As was mentioned during the webinar, these briefings will all be recorded, and the recording and slides from the Severe Violator Enforcement Program webinar are now available.  To download either or both, click here, scroll to the bottom of the page, insert the password “OSHA2” in the box, and click “Go.”  Links to a PDF of the slides and to the full recording of the webinar will appear at the bottom of the page.

As the clock ticked down and the apple dropped to start a new year, many of us reflected on the year that had passed and our resolutions and New Year’s wishes for the upcoming year.  Probably not many of you were thinking about your resolutions and New Year’s wishes as they related to everybody’s favorite regulatory agency, OSHA, so let us do that for you.  Here are three New Year’s wishes about OSHA enforcement that the national OSHA Practice Group at Epstein Becker & Green hopes to see come true in 2014 for our clients and friends in Industry:

1.      We wish for OSHA to drop or amend its proposed changes to the Injury & Illness Recordkeeping rule.

Late last year, OSHA proposed some major changes to its Injury and Illness Recordkeeping regulations. The proposed rule would transform the current Recordkeeping framework in which employers’ records of workplace injuries remained private to the employer unless: (i) OSHA requests them during an inspection at the workplace; or (ii) the employer receives a rare request for the recordkeeping data from OSHA or the Bureau of Labor Statistics in a special survey.  Under the proposed rule, employers’ injury and illness data will become an open book, requiring the collection of larger amounts of data on work-related injuries and illnesses, as well as making much of that information public.  Here are the major provisions of the proposed rule:

  • Requirements for Large Employers: The new rule will require employers with 250 or more workers to submit to OSHA every quarter the individual entries on their OSHA 300 Logs and the information entered on each OSHA 301 Incident Report.  OSHA would then post the data on its public website after redacting only injured employees’ identifying      information.
  • Requirements for Small Employers: The proposed rule would also require employers with 20 or more workers in designated industries to submit information electronically from their 300A Annual Summary forms to OSHA, which OSHA also intends to publicize.

We anticipate that the new reporting requirements and publication of employers’ injury records will significantly increase the burden on employers, both in man hours and cost, and will trigger significant unexpected implications for the regulated community, including: (i) extraordinary burden on employers to comply; (ii) more inspections and citations by OSHA; (iii) discourage employers from recording all recordable injuries; (iv) invasion of injured employees’ privacy; and (v) harm to employers’ reputations.  The public perception of certain employers may be skewed because this reported information would be publicized. Specifically, under the proposed rule, OSHA would only make public the basic data provided in injury and illness recording forms.  The public, therefore, could take the injury and illness data out of context, as the public would not be privy to the details behind injuries, safety measures employers adopt, how the data compares to industry averages, or any other relevant information related to the circumstances of the injury or illness.  For more information about the proposed rule and its potential impacts, check out our article from last month.

Our New Year’s wish for the regulated community is that this rule not be implemented, or at least for the “publication” element of the rule to be stricken.  OSHA is accepting public comments on the proposed rule as written and several alternatives published in the Federal Register. Considering the extensive impact the proposed rule will have on employers, industry participation in the comment stage of the rulemaking process, especially with the help of experienced OSHA counsel, will be essential in driving fundamental and necessary revisions to the proposed rule.

 

2.      We wish for OSHA to change the way it implements the Severe Violator Enforcement Program to respect Constitutional Due Process.

As one would expect for a program designed for recidivists, the punitive elements of OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program (“SVEP”) are significant, including: (a) inflammatory public press releases branding employers as a “severe violators”; (b) adding employers’ names to a public log of Severe Violators; (c) mandatory follow-up inspections at the cited facilities; (d) numerous inspections (up to ten) at sister facilities within the same corporate enterprise; and (e) enhanced terms in settlements (such as corporate-wide abatement, requiring third party audits, etc.).

Our major frustration with the SVEP is not with the severity of the consequences, it is with the timing in which employers are “qualified” into the Program.  As OSHA currently implements the SVEP, employers are qualified into SVEP before final disposition of the underlying citations.  In other words, employers begin to face the harsh punishments before OSHA has proven that the employer violated the law at all, let alone in the egregious ways that qualify them for SVEP.  We have written extensively about the SVEP here on the OSHA Law Update Blog.  For more information, check out any of these articles.

Our New Year’s wish that OSHA amend the Severe Violator Enforcement Program to delay qualifying employers into the Program until the underlying qualifying citations become a Final Order of the OSH Review Commission.  In the alternative, we wish for a Court to evaluate and strike down the Constitutionality of this element of SVEP.

 

3.      We wish for OSHA to revisit its unlawful interpretation regarding participation in OSHA inspections by union representatives at non-union worksites.

Last year, OSHA issued a formal Interpretation Letter of its regulation governing who may participate in OSHA walkaround inspections (29 C.F.R. 1903.8(c) – Representatives of Employers and Employees). Continue Reading OSHA-Related New Year’s Resolutions and Wishes for 2014

On Tuesday, December 3, 2013, in conjunction with the Grain Journal, Eric J. Conn, Head of the national OSHA Practice Group at Epstein Becker & Green, delivered a webinar focused on the OSHA enforcement landscape related to work on top of rolling stock (specifically railcars) at grain elevator facilities.  The webinar, including a Q&A session, was recorded, and the Grain Journal has made the recording available online.  The recording includes an audio broadcast with a video of the accompanying PowerPoint presentation.

Here is a link to the recording of the Railcar Fall Protection webinar and a link to the slides from the briefing.

The December 3rd webinar focused on the complex circumstances that require employees to work on top of railcars at grain elevators, and how OSHA has historically and is presently addressing those circumstances through enforcement.  Whether it’s prepping cars down track away from the elevator, helping to guide a load out spout into a railcar, or allowing state or federal grain inspectors access to railcars for stowage inspections and sampling, there are numerous work activities that require employees to stand on and walk between the tops of railcars. With potentially miles of track where work may need to be done on top of the railcars, there often is no feasible way to provide anchor points to which employees can tie off fall protection over the tracks.  To complicate matters more, OSHA’s requirements regarding Railcar Fall Protection are among the most confusing and inconsistently enforced.  The webinar covered:

  • The history of OSHA enforcement as it relates to rolling stock fall protection, from the 1996 “Miles Memo” to the most recent court decisions upholding the Miles Memo;
  • OSHA’s active enforcement agenda that includes a targeting of railcar fall protection issues in the grain industry;
  • OSHA’s ongoing Walking & Working Surfaces rulemaking activity, which may introduce new railcar fall protection requirements; and
  • Recommendations for how best to avoid OSHA citations while performing work on railcars.

This was the second in a series of OSHA law related webinars Mr. Conn will be delivering for the grain industry in conjunction with Grain Journal.  The first webinar in the series, presented in September 2013,  was entitled “New OSHA Sweep Auger Enforcement Policies… How They Will Affect You.”  Here is a link to the OSHA / Sweep Auger webinar recording.

By Eric J. Conn, Head of EBG’s national OSHA Practice Group

We have written extensively about problems with OSHA’s controversial Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP) here on the OSHA Law Update blog.  If the leadership team in the national office of OSHA invited us to sit down with them to ask questions on behalf of Industry about some of these problems with the SVEP, here is what we would ask them:

  1. As one would expect for a program designed for recidivists, the punitive elements of the SVEP are significant, including: (a) inflammatory public press releases branding the employer as a severe violator; (b) adding the employer’s name to a public log of Severe Violators; (c) mandatory follow-up inspections at the cited facilities; (d) conducting numerous inspections (up to ten) at sister facilities within the same corporate enterprise; and (e) demanding enhanced terms in settlements (such as corporate-wide abatement, requiring the employer to hire third party auditors to report findings to OSHA, etc.).  However, with the consequences of “qualifying” into SVEP being so, well, severe, how does OSHA justify the fact that the Agency qualifies employers into SVEP before final disposition of the underlying citations?  In other words, how is it lawful, Constitutional, or just plain fair that employers should face these harsh punishments before OSHA has proven that the employer violated the law at all, let alone in the egregious ways that qualify them for SVEP?  For more details about this concern, check out our article regarding the legal and constitutional implications of this premature qualification into SVEP.
  2. For more than two years after OSHA launched the SVEP, the Directive for the Program did not include any explanation for how employers could get out once they officially qualified.  When OSHA’s leadership team was asked about this at conferences and meetings, they similarly could not or would not offer any guidance.  The SVEP was quite literally a roach motel; you could check in, but you could never leave.  After much clamoring from industry representatives, earlier this year, OSHA finally publicized a set of so-called SVEP exit criteria.  In short, SVEP employers may get out of the Program if they: (a) pay all the final civil penalties; (b) address all of the abatement required by the citations or settlement; (c) address any other terms of the settlement; (d) make it three full calendar years after final disposition of the citations without receiving any related Serious violations; and (e) even if all of the above is accomplished, the employer may be released from SVEP by the undefined discretion of the OSHA Regional Administrator in the employer’s area.  Check out our earlier post on the OSHA Law Update blog about the SVEP exit criteria.  As relieved as Industry was to see OSHA announce some exit criteria for getting out of SVEP, the specific exit criteria identified by OSHA raise many questions about fairness and reasonableness.  For example, the clock for the three-year “probation/exit period” does not start until “final disposition” of the underlying citations, as opposed to when OSHA qualifies employers into the Program (i.e., immediately upon issuance of the citations).  My questions for OSHA about the SVEP exit criteria would be, how does OSHA reconcile the timing for exit against the timing for qualification?  Why does the start of the exit clock wait for final disposition, but OSHA does not wait for final disposition to dump employers into the Program to begin with?  Also, what criteria or factors will the Regional Administrators consider when exercising their undefined discretion in deciding whether to let employers out of SVEP?
  3. Also relevant to OSHA’s SVEP exit criteria, if an employer has a good faith disagreement with OSHA about the basis for the qualifying citation(s), and decides to contest the citations through the formal process provided by the OSH Act, that process can take several years.  Therefore, if the employer contests the citations, and that contest takes two years, and at the end of that two year contest process, the citation package is cut dramatically by an ALJ, but there still remains one SVEP-qualifying citation on the books, that employer’s exit/probation period will be at least 5 years instead of 3.  Hasn’t the employer been punished for exercising his right to contest citations?  Put another way, doesn’t three-years from final disposition exit criteria discourage employers from exercising their right to challenge OSHA’s citations? Continue Reading 5 Questions We Would Ask OSHA about the Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP)

Following the announcement last week of the first ever Deferred Prosecution Agreement in an OSHA matter, the Editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter interviewed Eric J. Conn, Head of Epstein Becker Green’s national OSHA Practice Group, who was involved in the matter, about OSHA enforcement trends in general, and OSHA criminal prosecutions in particular.

Based on that interview, Corporate Crime Reporter ran an article entitled Epstein Becker Partner Eric Conn On the Rise of OSHA Enforcement.  Here are some excerpts from the article:

“‘OSHA enforcement is up in every measurable metric, from number of inspections, to inspections resulting in citations, citations per inspection, average penalty per violation, average penalty per inspection, number of significant cases (cases with $100,000 penalties or more), and million dollar cases,’ Conn told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week.  ‘Every measure you can think of — it is all up and it is all up somewhat significantly since 2009.’”

“And Conn is seeing an increase in activity when it comes to criminal enforcement of Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) cases.  ‘Historically, you almost never saw criminal enforcement,’ Conn said. ‘There might have been one or two cases a year since the OSH Act was passed 40 years ago. In that time, there have been over 400,000 workplace fatalities, but fewer than 80 OSH Act cases have been criminally prosecuted. . . .  But in the last five years, we have seen much more interest by U.S. Attorneys in these cases. They are taking them up more actively. And as a result, we are seeing more criminal settlements — plea deals, or other possible resolutions that come before an actual prosecution.’”

The article also touched on other controversial OSHA enforcement policies, such as OSHA’s program of “Regulation by Shaming” and the “Severe Violator Enforcement Program.”

Click here for the full article.

Last week, Washington Legal Foundation published a Legal Backgrounder regarding OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program (“SVEP”) authored by Eric J. Conn, Head of Epstein Becker & Green’s national OSHA Practice Group.  The Legal Backgrounder expands on a series of posts here on the OSHA Law Update blog regarding OSHA’s controversial Severe Violator Enforcement Program.

The article focuses on a White Paper issued by OSHA this Spring, in which OSHA analyzes the first 18 months of its new, controversial enforcement program.  The White Paper concludes that the SVEP is “off to a strong start” and is “already meeting certain key goals,” including:

  1. Identifying recalcitrant employers whose violations of the OSH Act “demonstrate indifference to the health and safety of their employees.”
  2. Effectively guiding OSHA’s enforcement resources toward those employers by “targeting high-emphasis hazards, facilitating inspections across multiple worksites, and by providing Regional and State Plan offices with a nationwide referral procedure.”
  3. Demonstrating its effectiveness by creating a “significant increase in follow-up inspections and enhanced settlements.”

Despite OSHA’s claims, careful scrutiny of the data available regarding the SVEP casts doubt on the Program’s effectiveness and reveals several glaring problems with how the SVEP is being administered.  Most notably, the Severe Violator Enforcement Program:

  1. Disproportionately targets small employers with enforcement rather than compliance assistance;
  2. Provokes more than four times as many legal challenges to the underlying citations as compared to the average OSHA enforcement action;
  3. Encounters significant obstacles in the execution of follow-up inspections of SVEP-qualified employers; and
  4. Finds virtually no systemic safety issues when follow-up and related facility inspections are conducted (i.e., the Program is not capturing recalcitrant employers)

Check out the full Legal Backgrounder regarding OSHA’s SVEP here.

By Eric J. Conn, Head of the OSHA Group at Epstein Becker & Green

Introduction

OSHA recently issued a White Paper analyzing the first 18 months of its controversial enforcement initiative known as the Severe Violator Enforcement Program (“SVEP”).  Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, the White Paper somehow concludes that the SVEP is “off to a strong start,” and that it “is already meeting certain key goals,” including:

  1. Successfully identifying recalcitrant employers who disregard their OSH Act obligations; and
  2. Effectively allocating OSHA’s follow-up enforcement resources “by targeting high-emphasis hazards, facilitating inspections across multiple worksites of employers found to be recalcitrant, and by providing Regional and State Plan offices with a nationwide referral procedure.”

A candid review of the publicly available SVEP data, however, exposes SVEP’s underbelly, and casts doubt on the Program’s effectiveness.  Most notably, SVEP:

  1. Disproportionately targets small employers;
  2. Provokes 8x as many challenges to the underlying citations as compared to the average OSHA enforcement action;
  3. Encounters significant obstacles in executing follow-up inspections of SVEP-designated employers; and
  4. Finds virtually no systemic safety issues when follow-up and related facility inspections are conducted.

 

SVEP Background

We have written quite a bit about the SVEP previously on the OSHA Law Update Blog, but here is some background about what it is, who is being targeted, and what the consequences are.  On June 18, 2010, OSHA instituted SVEP to focus its enforcement resources on recalcitrant employers, whom OSHA believes demonstrate indifference to their employees’ health and safety.  SVEP replaced the much-maligned Enhanced Enforcement Program (“EEP”), a George W. Bush era enforcement program also intended to target wayward employers.  The EEP was criticized as ineffective and inefficient because its broad qualifying criteria created so many cases that OSHA struggled to conduct follow-up inspections.  OSHA, therefore, scrapped the EEP and instituted SVEP with narrower qualifying criteria and a better infrastructure for pursuing follow-up inspections.

Employers qualify for SVEP if they meet one of the following criteria:

  1. Any alleged violation categorized by OSHA as “Egregious”;
  2. 1+ Willful, Repeat or Failure-to-Abate alleged violations associated with a fatality or the overnight hospitalization of three or more employees;
  3. 2+ Willful, Repeat or Failure-to-Abate alleged violations in connection with a high emphasis hazard (e.g., falls, amputations, grain handling, and other hazards that are the subject of an OSHA National Emphasis Program); or
  4. 3+ Willful, Repeat or Failure-to-Abate alleged violations related to Process Safety Management (i.e., avoiding the release of a highly hazardous chemical). Continue Reading OSHA Claims Its Severe Violator Enforcement Program is “Off to a Strong Start”

The January/February 2013 issue of Feed & Grain Magazine featured an article entitled “Severe Violator Enforcement Program Defies Constitution” authored by Eric J. Conn, the Head of EBG’s national OSHA Practice Group.  The article expands on a series of posts here on the OSHA Law Update blog regarding OSHA’s controversial Severe Violator Enforcement Program (“SVEP”).

The article provides a detailed explanation about the SVEP, including:

  1. The origin and intent of OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program;
  2. the consequences to employers who “qualify” for the SVEP;
  3. How and what types of employers have been qualifying for the Program;
  4. The questionable legality of the way OSHA implements the Program; and
  5. The unfair “exit criteria” from the SVEP.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

“Despite the SVEP’s substantial punitive elements, OSHA deposits employers into the program before the underlying allegations become a Final Order; i.e., before the employers have had an opportunity to prove wrong the qualifying allegations to the OSH Review Commission. Before the employer has a chance to do that, OSHA can, under the SVEP Directive, begin follow-up inspections and inspections at related facilities, add the employer to a public and embarrassing list of severe violators, and condemn the employer in the public arena through harsh enforcement news releases at the time of the issuance of the citations. ‘Guilty before proven innocent’ at its core.

This article explores the Constitutional Due Process implications raised by OSHA’s implementation of the SVEP, and especially the enforcement news releases that accompany employers’ placement into the Program. It will also explain the ways that OSHA’s execution of the SVEP violates the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which governs agencies’ rulemaking authority. Finally, it discusses the other elements of the SVEP that strike at fundamental fairness and sound policy, such as the nearly impossible ‘exit ramp’ OSHA created for employers to get out of the Program.”

Here is a link to the full article in a standard web version, and a link to the Digital Edition of the January/February 2013 issue of Feed & Grain Magazine, so you can view the article as it appeared in the hard copy magazine.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to all of you, and Happy 1st Anniversary to the OSHA Law Update blog.  On December 20th, we celebrated our first full year of updates and articles (56 of them) about important OSHA Law topics here on the OSHA Law Update blog.  We would hardly have the energy or enthusiasm to keep the OSHA Law Update current if it were not for all of the incredibly positive feedback, comments, and questions that we have received over the year from all of you.  Thank you for that.

Just as we did last year, as the clock was winding down on a remarkable year of OSHA enforcement and other activity, it is time to take a look ahead to the new year, and offer our thoughts about what we can all expect from OSHA in 2013.  Here is a link to our post from December 2011 in which forecasted 5 important OSHA developments for 2012 (a pretty accurate forecast in retrospect), and here are three developments we expect from OSHA in 2013:

1.  Heavy-handed enforcement will continue to trend up:

During President Obama’s first term in office, OSHA consistently increased enforcement in every measureable way, year over year, and there is every reason to believe that trend will continue.  OSHA’s budget increased early in President Obama’s first team, and that allowed OSHA to hire more than 100 new compliance officers.  The agency also redirected most of the resources and personnel who had formerly been involved in compliance assistance and cooperative programs into enforcement.  As a result of this big increase in enforcement personnel, we saw the number of inspections increase from averages in the mid-30,000’s during the Bush Administration to the mid-40,000’s through President Obama’s first term.  Barring a prolonged trip over the Fiscal Cliff and actual implementation of sequestration, the trend of increasing enforcement personnel and increasing inspections will continue.

In addition to more frequent visits from OSHA, the OSHA leadership team also modified its Field Operations Manual for the purpose of driving up average and total penalties per inspection (i.e., by raising minimum penalties, average penalties, and eliminating penalty reductions available for size and safe history).  As a result, the average per Serious violation penalty doubled from the Bush Administration (approx. $1,000 per violation) to the end of Obama’s first term (approx. $2,000 per violation).  OSHA’s leadership team has expressed a goal of continuing to grow that average to approx. $3,000 per Serious violation.  We also watched the frequency of enhanced citations (i.e., Willful and Repeat violations that carry 10x higher penalties) increase at a rate of more than 200%.  Those changes, and other aggressive enforcement strategies by OSHA, have resulted in the Agency doubling the total number of “Significant” enforcement actions (cases involving penalties of $100,000 or more), and tripling the number of cases involving total penalties over $1M.  That trend is also expected to continue.

The Democratic Party unveiled its Party Platform during President Obama’s Nominating Convention, and offered a glimpse into what we can expect from OSHA in 2013 and beyond.

The platform called for a focus on “continu[ing] to adopt and enforce comprehensive safety standards.”  Many dubbed the 2012 a “status quo election,” which is probably right, and because the status quo at OSHA over the past four years has been a trend of increasing enforcement and focused rulemaking, that is precisely what we should expect from OSHA over the next four years.

Specifically, OSHA will continue to aggressively enforce its existing standards (i.e., increasing numbers of inspections, increasing penalties, and increasing publicity related to enforcement actions).  We anticipate a doubling down on programs and strategies like: