Process Safety Management

Wood Cutter Takes Water BreakAs it gets hotter outside, employers should consider how best to protect their employees from work-related heat illness.  Thousands of workers fall victim to heat illness each year, and, tragically, many die from heat exposure at work.

Over the past several years, OSHA has significantly increased its focus on protecting employees from succumbing to heat

On January 11, 2015, a multi-vehicle pile-up took place in west Michigan involving nearly 200 vehicles, including at least one truck carrying fireworks, and another carrying formic acid.  The formic acid caused a HAZMAT event and the fireworks exploded in the truck that was carrying them.  Many were badly injured in the accident, including two

On November 21, 2014, the Department of Labor released its Agency Rule List, which provides the status of all rulemaking efforts at each of its agencies.  OSHA dominated the list of regulatory activity in the Department, listing 26 regulations in the prerule, proposed rule, and final rule stages. 

Of these 26 items, OSHA announced that

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

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 Eric J. Conn, Head of the OSHA Practice Group

Back in September, we posted an article critiquing OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program (“SVEP”) in general, and the newly announced “exit criteria” in particular.  Since that time, in the beginning of October, OSHA updated its embarrassing SVEP Log that it maintains for public consumption

By Eric J. Conn, Head of the OSHA Practice Group

On June 18, 2010 OSHA replaced its much-maligned Enhanced Enforcement Program (EEP) with a new and equally problematic initiative called the Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP).  The SVEP is intended to focus OSHA’s enforcement resources on those employers whom OSHA believes demonstrate indifference to their OSH Act obligations by committing certain types of violations, including:

  • Any violation categorized as “Egregious”;
  • One or more Willful, Repeat or Failure-to-Abate violations associated with a fatality or the overnight hospitalization of three or more employees;
  • Two or more Willful, Repeat or Failure-to-Abate violations in connection with a high emphasis hazard (generally speaking, the subjects of OSHA’s special emphasis programs, including falls, amputations, grain handling, etc.); or
  • Three or more Willful, Repeat or Failure-to-Abate violations related to Process Safety Management (prevention of the release of a highly hazardous chemicals).

According to an attorney with OSHA’s Solicitor’s office, employers are not added to the SVEP immediately upon receipt of citations meeting these criteria, but rather, are deposited in the Program within fifteen working days of receipt of the citations upon either a settlement at an Informal Settlement Conference, or the filing by the employer of a notice of contest challenging the validity of the citations.  More than two-thirds of SVEP cases are contested by the cited employer, and of the 200+ contested SVEP cases, nearly half of those contests remain open today.  As a result, some employers have been on the list for more than two years despite OSHA not proving that the employer violated the law at all, let alone in a way that meets the extreme qualifying criteria of the SVEP.  The constitutional due process implications of the SVEP are glaring.

Once an employer is added to the SVEP (again just based on unproven allegations), the company is immediately subject to the punitive elements of the Program, including mandatory follow-up inspections at the facility where the SVEP-qualifying citations were issued, as well as at sister facilities throughout the enterprise.  The issuance of SVEP-qualifying citations also comes with a heavy dose of public shaming by the Department of Labor.  Specifically, with every SVEP citation comes a public press release issued by OSHA, which now includes an inflammatory quote from a high-ranking OSHA or Department of Labor representative about the employer.  The Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA and his senior staff refer to these press releases as a campaign of “Regulation by Shaming.”  The SVEP press releases and an embarrassing public log of all employers in the SVEP are available on OSHA’s website.

The final problematic element of the SVEP has always been the manner in which employers can (or cannot) be removed from the Program once they get in.  For more than two years, OSHA operated the SVEP without providing employers any way out of the Program, other than by eliminating the underlying SVEP-qualifying citation through the multi-year contest process or persuading OSHA to withdraw the qualifying citations in a settlement.  After much clamoring from industry, OSHA finally released a press release summarizing a memorandum from the Director of Enforcement Programs to the Regional Administrators on August 16, 2012, which set forth a series of removal criteria.

The memo provided a framework for getting out of SVEP, but the extremely harsh removal criteria provide little relief to employers.  The memo explains that:

“[A]n employer may be removed from the SVEP after a period of three years from the date of final disposition of the SVEP inspection citation items. Final disposition may occur through failure to contest, settlement agreement, Review Commission final order, or court of appeals decision.”  Of course, it is not as easy as just waiting those 1095 days from a Final Order.  Employers must have also “abated all SVEP–related hazards affirmed as violations, paid all final penalties, abided by and completed all settlement provisions, and not received any additional Serious citations related to the hazards identified in the SVEP inspection at the initial establishment or at any related establishments.”

If employers fall short of any of these requirements, they will have to wait an additional three years to be considered for removal.  Even if the employer does meet all the criteria, removal from SVEP is not guaranteed.  In all cases with the exception for those involving corporate-wide settlements, the Regional Administrator has the final say as to whether an employer is removed from the program.  That discretionary decision is based on vague, undefined factors related to follow-up inspections and enforcement data.  Employers who agreed to corporate-wide settlements are reviewed for removal by the Director of Enforcement Programs (“DEP”) in OSHA’s National Office.
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By Eric J. Conn, Head of the OSHA Practice Group

The deadline passed last week for OSHA to appeal a recent decision by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) that struck down OSHA’s attempt to expand its Personal Protective Equipment (“PPE”) standard by way of an enforcement memorandum that mandated oil and gas employers ensure their employees don flame retardant clothing (“FRC”) during drilling operations (OSHA’s “FRC Memo”).  The Judge ruled that the FRC Memo constituted “improper rulemaking under the aegis of an enforcement standard.” See Sec’y of Labor v. Petro Hunt LLC, OSHRCJ, No. 11-0873 (June 2, 2012).  The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (“Review Commission”) also declined to independently take-up the decision for review, so the ALJ’s decision is now officially a Final Order of the Review Commission.

The ALJ’s decision represents a meaningful victory for employers as it relates to any PPE enforcement action, not just those related to FRC. The ALJ chastised OSHA for attempting to circumvent the formal notice and comment rulemaking process required by the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), by issuing the FRC Memo rather than amending its regulations. Although OSHA did not appeal the Judge’s ruling, the Agency has expressed, through both words and actions, disagreement with the Judge’s ruling.

The Petro Hunt case arose out of an October 15, 2010 OSHA inspection at an oil production worksite in North Dakota, after the Sherriff’s Department notified the Agency that a fire engulfed a treater shed. Following the inspection, OSHA cited the employer for allegedly failing to provide and require employees to wear FRC. The employer contested the citation, and a hearing was held before ALJ Patrick Augustine in November 2011. In this case of first impression, the ALJ concluded that the FRC Memo did not simply interpret the standard but, rather, amounted to a new standard that should have been subject to the formal rulemaking process under the APA.

Judge Augustine reasoned that the FRC Memo transformed the PPE standard from a “performance-based” standard – which grants employers reasonable discretion to assess the nature of hazards at their workplaces and select appropriate PPE to address those hazards – into a specification standard – in this case, an obligation to provide a specific form of PPE (flame retardant clothing), during oil and gas operations “regardless of the particular circumstances that may be present at any individual facility.” In striking down the FRC Memo, the Judge stated:

Complainant cannot ‘require’ anything more than what is authorized by the regulations. If [the Secretary of Labor] wishes to specifically require that FRC be worn in all instances at oil and gas operations, then she must report to the required notice and comment rulemaking process. Otherwise, [OSHA] must independently prove in each case that Respondent had actual notice, or that a reasonable person in Respondent’s position would have recognized a hazard requiring the use of FRC.

The ALJ also rejected OSHA’s argument that the Review Commission should grant deference to OSHA’s interpretation in the FRC Memo, because, Judge Augustine explained, the interpretation was “unreasonable and inconsistent” with established regulations. The ALJ proceeded to vacate the citation, reasoning that OSHA failed to establish that the employer had actual notice of a need for FRC at the inspected worksite, or that a reasonable person familiar with the circumstances and industry would have recognized the existence of a flash fire hazard. To support his decision, the ALJ highlighted the following facts:

  1. OSHA’s failure to establish that flash fires were a hazard at the worksite;
  2. None of the employer’s employees suffered injuries due to fires in the previous two years; and
  3. The employer conducted a thorough hazard assessment, and reasonably concluded that engineering and administrative controls (methods of addressing hazards generally preferred over reliance on PPE), adequately addressed any potential fire hazard.
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By Eric J. Conn and Casey M. Cosentino

Following a March 20, 2012 Press Release, on March 26, 2012, OSHA issued its much anticipated final Hazard Communication Rule (“HazCom”), which integrates the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (“GHS”) into OSHA’s old Hazard Communication Standard (“HazCom” or “HCS”).  The

By Forrest G. Read, IV and Eric J. Conn

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) announced earlier this month a new policy disguised as a nod to enhancing employee participation in CSB investigations, but which may actually represent a dramatic limitation in the investigation rights of both employees and employers.  The new