Frequently Asked Questions

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?
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I was recently asked an interesting question by an industry contact:

“Employers often are told to know and exercise their rights during an OSHA inspection.  What exactly are employers’ rights during an OSHA inspection?”

While it may not feel like it during an inspection, employers have many rights before, during, and after OSHA inspections.

Before an inspection even begins, employers have a right under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to be free in their workplaces, just as they are in their homes, from unreasonable searches and seizures, which includes inspections by OSHA.  What that means is, OSHA may not inspect a workplace unless the Agency has administrative probable cause (a lower burden than criminal probable cause) to believe that a violative condition exists within.  Accordingly, employers have a right to demand an inspection warrant that establishes OSHA’s probable cause to inspect.  We rarely advise clients to demand an inspection warrant; rather we try to negotiate with the Agency over a reasonable scope of the inspection, and with such an agreement, waive the warrant right and consent to the inspection.

Another right employers should consider asserting with regard to OSHA inspections is the right to exclude non-employee third parties (such as a union representative at a non-union workplace) from participating in the inspection process. OSHA recently issued a formal Interpretation Letter of the regulation covering who may participate in OSHA walk-around inspection (29 C.F.R. 1903.8(c) – Representatives of Employers and Employees).  Specifically, OSHA expressed its belief that employees at a non-union worksite may authorize a third party affiliated with a union or community organization to act as the employees’ representative during an inspection.  Notwithstanding OSHA’s interpretation letter, the plain language of the standard makes it clear that such involvement by a third party union representative is not permitted under the law, and employers may exercise their rights to exclude third parties from the inspection by demanding and challenging a warrant under those circumstances.  If confronted with such a situation, employers should consult with legal counsel before allowing any non-employee third party to participate.  One approach would be to demand and challenge an inspection warrant.  If the non-employee is permitted on the premises, employers should be explicit about who bears responsibility for any injury to that person, who is responsible for any PPE, determine whether that person is trained on any hazards that may be present or has any necessary security clearances for sensitive activities that may be in view, and how to protect any proprietary processes from being revealed.  Here is an article we wrote on this issue when the interpretation letter was released.

Also before inspections begin, employers have the right to an opening conference.  In my opinion, this is the most important stage of the inspection because it is the time when employers can:

  1. Negotiate to narrow the scope of the inspection;
  2. Can ask questions about the purpose of and probable cause justifying the inspection; and
  3. Try to establish ground rules with OSHA about how the inspection may proceed, from the collection of documents (through written requests only), to interviews (scheduled in advance), and physical access to the facility (only with a management escort).

If the inspection was initiated by an employee or former employee complaint, employers also have a right to access a copy of the complaint before consenting to the inspection.

Once an OSHA inspection begins, employers also have many rights, including a right to accompany the compliance officer at all times during the walkaround, and to take side-by-side photographs or other physical evidence that OSHA takes during the inspection.  Another important right relates to management interviews.  Interview statements by management representatives bind the company, and since the OSH Act gives employers the right to be present when binding statements are taken, employers therefore have a right to be present and participate in interviews of management witnesses, regardless of whether the management witness wants the representative there.
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By Eric J. Conn, Head of the OSHA Practice Group at Epstein Becker Green

An industry contact recently asked me what five issues I expected OSHA would be focusing its enforcement efforts on for the balance of this year.  Here was my response:

1.  Emergency Exits & Exit Routes – A couple of months

Join Eric J. Conn and Amanda Strainis-Walker, attorneys from Epstein Becker & Green’s national OSHA Practice Group, for two in-person OSHA briefings on Tuesday, September 24th in Philadelphia, PA and Wednesday, September 25th in Pittsburgh, PA.

The presentations will focus on why it’s important to and how best to prepare for and

In March of last year, we answered five frequently asked questions related to OSHA inspections.  After receiving much positive feedback about that post and a few new OSHA inspection-related questions, we decided to launch a regular series on the OSHA Law Update blog with posts dedicated to OSHA Frequently Asked Questions.  For each post

Back in March, we answered five frequently asked questions related to OSHA inspections.  We received so much positive feedback from that post, and so many requests to address additional OSHA questions that we decided to launch a monthly series here on the OSHA Law Update blog with posts dedicated to your OSHA Frequently Asked Questions.  For each of the posts in this OSHA FAQ Series, we have included both a text response and a video/webinar response with slides and audio.

In this post, OSHA FAQ #4, we address a question regarding establishing an OSHA Inspection Team, including what roles should be designated and how to prepare the team for an unexpected visit from OSHA.

QUESTION:   To best prepare for an unannounced OSHA Inspection, my Company is assembling an “Inspection Team” to be ready to manage a visit from OSHA.  What are the different roles that we should include on the Team, and what are the responsibilities for which we should train the various team members?

OSHA FAQ 4Click here to view a video response (WMV video format). 

OSHA conducts approximately 95% of its “Discovery” during the inspection phase (not the subsequent Contest stage), and uses the Discovery it obtains during inspections to determine whether violations are present and can be supported in potential citations.  Accordingly, it is critical for employers to be prepared to manage the flow of information to OSHA during an inspection.

Accordingly, one of the most important steps every employer should take to prepare for an OSHA Inspection, and to ensure the inspection process goes smoothly once an OSHA compliance safety and health officer (CSHO) does arrive, is to designate certain personnel to fill specific roles on an Inspection Team.  This will help you respond quickly when OSHA starts an inspection, have better controls in place to manage the flow of information during the inspection, such as better:

  • Control over the entire scope of the inspection;
  • Organization and care in the document production process;
  • Preparation and representation of employees and managers during inspection interviews;
  • Ability to capture duplicate evidence; i.e., side-by-side photographs, samples, and other physical evidence, and a complete copy set of documents produced to OSHA; and
  • Control over what parts of your facility the CSHO observes during his walkaround inspection.

To accomplish these goals, we recommend that you assign, in advance of any inspection, the following Inspection Team roles, and train the assigned team members in all of the related employers’, employees’, and OSHA’s rights, as well as inspection strategies, related to their assigned roles on the Inspection Team:

1.  Principal Spokesperson.

  • The spokesperson is the team leader and point person for OSHA during the inspection.
  • It is the Principal Spokesperson to manage the overall inspection, from communicating decisions to OSHA about consenting to the inspection or demanding a warrant, to negotiating the scope of the inspection, and laying the ground rules for document production and interviews.
  • This role is generally covered by your outside OSHA counsel, Corporate Safety Director, or another Senior Management representative.  The inspection should not be permitted to begin until the Principal Spokesperson is on-site (see our earlier post regarding delaying the start of an OSHA inspection to await your inspection representative).

2.  Document Coordinator.

  • Managing the document production during the inspection is perhaps the most important role.
  • The Document Coordinator should manage the entire document production process, including: (a) being designated as the sole authorized person to accept a document request (always in writing) from OSHA; (b) coordinating with company and third party representatives to gather responsive documents; (c) reviewing documents for responsiveness, and to determine whether they contain privileged or business confidential information; (d) processing the documents with Bates and Business Confidential labels; (e) preparing duplicate copies for the Company to keep; (f) producing the documents to OSHA; and (g) tracking the status of all document requests on a Document Control Log.
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Back in March, we answered five frequently asked questions related to OSHA inspections.  We received so much positive feedback from that post, and so many requests to address additional OSHA questions that we decided to launch a monthly series here on the OSHA Law Update Blog for OSHA FAQ posts.  For each of the

Back in March of this year, we answered five frequently asked questions related to OSHA inspections.  We received positive feedback from that post along with several requests to address new OSHA-related questions.  Accordingly, we started a new, monthly OSHA FAQ series last month, with the first FAQ post addressing potential triggers for OSHA inspections.

Back in March we answered five frequently asked questions related to OSHA inspections.  We received a lot of positive feedback about that post and several requests to address additional questions.  Following up on that feedback, we will be adding additional FAQ posts as a regular feature of the OSHA Law Update Blog.  In addition to