By Amanda R. Strainis-Walker

OSHA recently launched a Regional Emphasis Program (REP) that will focus enforcement resources on employers operating in the automotive supply manufacturing industry.  This new Auto Supply Manufacturers enforcement program will target manufacturers in the southeast that supply engines, airbags, trim, or any other automotive products.  The specific geographic areas covered by

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).
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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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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

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

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

Last month, OSHA issued an enforcement memorandum directing inspectors to scrutinize whether employers provide and maintain adequate means of exit; i.e., unlocked, unobstructed, and clearly marked exit doors and exit routes and doors that comply with 29 C.F.R. 1910 Subpart E – Means of Egress (specifically, the various requirements of 1910.36).  The memo was issued in response to a deadly explosion and ammonia release at a poultry processing plant in China on June 4, 2013, in which at least 120 employees lost their lives, many because they were unable to exit the plant due to blocked or locked exits.

In the enforcement memorandum, OSHA announced that:

“During inspections of all workplaces [Compliance Safety & Health Officers] should be mindful of whether the employer has provided and maintained adequate means of egress from work areas; e.g., adequate number of exit routes are provided, exit routes are free and obstructed, and exit doors are not locked.”

This list of items for review is consistent with the criteria OSHA identified in its Emergency Exit Routes Fact Sheet.  Here are the basic requirements for complying with 1910.36 set forth in OSHA’s regulations and the Fact Sheet:

  1. Employers must determine how many exits routes are required in its building.  As a general rule, workplaces must have a minimum of two exits, and possibly more based on the number of employees, the size of the building, and the arrangement of the workplace.  One exit route may be allowed if the size of the building, its occupancy, or arrangement allows all employees to evacuate safely.
  2. Exit routes must be maintained unobstructed, and the exit doors must remain unlocked from the inside.  Specifically, exit routes must be free of stored materials, equipment, and especially explosive or highly flammable furnishings.  Exits doors must be conspicuous, visible, free of decoration, and unlocked from the inside.
  3. Exit routes and doors must be properly labeled and maintained.  Proper labels include signs that read “EXIT” or “TO EXIT” in plain legible letters, and maintained with adequate lighting.  Doors or passages along the exit route that are not exits and do not lead to exits must be marked as “NOT AN EXIT” or labeled such that their non-exit purpose is obvious (e.g., store room, office, etc.).

Although the Enforcement Memorandum features the tragic anecdote about the Chinese poultry plant, OSHA’s Director of the Directorate of Enforcement specifically instructs his enforcement team to look out for egress issues in inspections at “all workplaces.” 
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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).
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By Paul H. Burmeister and Eric J. Conn

On April 5, 2013, OSHA published a formal Interpretation Letter (dated February 21, 2013) addressing whether, pursuant to OSHA’s regulation at 29 C.F.R. 1903.8(c) (Representatives of Employers and Employees), employees at a worksite without a collective bargaining agreement may authorize a person affiliated with a union or community organization to act as the employees’ representative during proceedings under the OSH Act, including compliance inspections.  OSHA responded affirmatively.

29 C.F.R. 1903.8(c) provides:

“The representative(s) authorized by employees shall be an employee(s) of the employer.  However, if in the judgment of the Compliance Safety and Health Officer, good cause has been 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.”

OSHA’s April 5, 2013 Interpretation Letter clarified its interpretation of the types of non-employees it considers to be “reasonably necessary to the conduct of an effective and thorough physical inspection,” by stretching the meaning beyond what has historically been understood to include only individual’s with relevant technical expertise to aid in the inspection, such as those listed as examples in the language of the regulation; i.e., “an industrial hygienist or a safety engineer.”  This interpretation moves away from that commonsense reading, and expressly invites the involvement of non-technical union representatives, even from unions who have not been elected to represent the workforce.

OSHA broke the question down into two parts. First, OSHA stated affirmatively that the OSH Act recognizes the role of an employee representative to represent employees’ interests in enforcement related matters.  Specifically, the employee representative, OSHA asserts, need not be a co-worker at the worksite. The employee representative could include any person (including community organization members) who acts in a bona fide representative capacity.

Second, OSHA clarified that non-union employees may have a union representative act as their employee representative, under Section 8 of the OSH Act. However, the union representative must be duly authorized by the employee to act as his representative. OSHA also noted under 29 CFR § 1903.8 that OSHA may exercise its discretion in allowing a non-employee representative, but generally would allow it when the non-employee representative may make a positive contribution to the inspection. For example, the letter specifically cites non-employee representatives who are skilled in evaluating similar working conditions or are fluent in another language that may be helpful.
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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

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