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 Elizabeth Bradley, Kara M. Maciel & Adam Solander

In breaking news, the Obama Administration has acknowledged the significant regulatory burdens that the Affordable Care Act’s January 1, 2014 deadline would place on employers.  Specifically, the Administration announced that in view of the complexity of the rules and reporting requirements, it is  postponing

By Paul Friedman and Meg Thering

Most prudent employers have begun efforts to ensure compliance with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA”), which is bringing about myriad changes with which employers must comply.  Many employers are evaluating their employee populations, deciding whether it makes economic sense to continue offering coverage, and performing self-audits to ensure compliance.  Employers should also be aware that the Department of Labor has already started auditing employers for compliance.  What many employers may not be aware of, however, is that employees may bring whistleblower claims for violations of the ACA – and these claims will be policed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”).

The ACA prohibits retaliation against employees (as defined by the Fair Labor Standards Act) for receiving cost sharing reductions or tax credits on a Health Insurance Exchange (or Marketplace), and it prohibits retaliation against employees who report alleged violations of Title I of the ACA.  Employees who believe they have been retaliated against in violation of these rules can file a complaint with OSHA within 180 days of the alleged violation.  Here is a link to OSHA’s Fact Sheet providing more information about these provisions.

OSHA’s Fact Sheet explains: “To further these goals, the Affordable Care Act’s section 1558 provides protection to employees against retaliation by an employer for reporting alleged violations of Title I of the Act or for receiving a health insurance tax credit or cost sharing reductions as a result of participating in a Health Insurance Exchange, or Marketplace.”

The period just closed (on April 28, 2013) for comments on the interim final rule published by OSHA of “Procedures for the Handling of Retaliation Complaints Under Section 1558 of the Affordable Care Act.”
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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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By Eric J. Conn, Head of EBG’s OSHA Practice Group

We are asked frequently by employers in the restaurant, delicatessen, and grocery industries whether OSHA’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Hand Protection regulations require the use of cut-resistant gloves for employees who work with knives or slicers.  Some employers have even reported that OSHA representatives have told them that the use of cut-resistant gloves is mandatory for employees working with knives in food service.  Whether food service employees in kitchens, delicatessens, or grocery stores are required to wear cut-resistant gloves, however, is not as clear-cut as OSHA has apparently been suggesting.

What is clear is that OSHA’s PPE standards are “performance-based” standards, not “specification” standards.  What that means is, the PPE standards do not proscribe specific PPE for specific circumstances.  Rather, the standards defer to employers’ reasonable judgment about what PPE is necessary, for which employees, in which circumstances.

The applicable standard, 29 CFR 1910.138(a), provides:

“Employers shall select and require employees to use appropriate hand protection when employees’ hands are exposed to hazards such as those from skin absorption of harmful substances; severe cuts or lacerations; severe abrasions; punctures; chemical burns; thermal burns; and harmful temperature extremes.”

1910.138(a) is part of a series of standards regarding PPE for various parts of the body that stem from a general PPE requirement set forth at 1910.132(d)(1), which provides that:

Employers “shall assess the workplace to determine if hazards are present, or are likely to be present, which necessitate the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).”

Under the plain language of these regulations, and a long history of enforcement policies and OSH Review Commission case law, if employers perform a good faith hazard assessment in connection with the work activities and equipment at their workplace, and they conclude based on that assessment that employees are not exposed to laceration/amputation hazards or that cut-resistant gloves are not appropriate PPE, and the conclusion is reasonable, then no citation should issue.

A July 3, 1995 Interpretation Letter issue by OSHA confirms this view of the PPE standards:

“What the employer is required to do is to perform a hazard assessment, and OSHA would expect that an employer will be particularly careful before considering that none of its employees in the listed occupations are exposed to hazards which necessitated the use of PPE.  In litigation, of course, it would be OSHA’s burden to prove that a hazard assessment was not done.  OSHA also believes that a standard of objective reasonableness is implicit in the requirement, and that accordingly, OSHA could cite for an unreasonable assessment.  Again, the burden of proof would be on OSHA.”

Factors that will impact the reasonableness of an employer’s hazard assessment include:

  1. The existence of past injuries (i.e., look for lacerations or amputations on past OSHA 300 Logs);
  2. Employee input (e.g., employees generally dislike gloves in this context because they sacrifice feel and dexterity of their fingers in relation to the blade); and
  3. The presence of other controls that protect against cuts, such as administrative safe cutting procedures and training, or engineering and equipment controls.

Last year we wrote a post on the OSHA Law Update blog regarding one very significant, recent case impacting this PPE analysis — Sec’y of Labor v. Petro Hunt LLC, OSHRCJ, No. 11-0873 (June 2, 2012).
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By Amanda R. Strainis-Walker and Eric J. Conn

February 1st is an important annual OSHA Injury and Illness Recordkeeping deadline for all U.S. employers, except for those with only ten or fewer employees or who operate in enumerated low hazard industries such as retail, service, finance, insurance or real estate (see the exempted industries

By Amanda R. Strainis-Walker and Eric J. Conn

The roller coaster ride that has been OSHA’s enforcement policy in connection with work inside grain bins with energized sweep augers has taken another major turn.  After decades of employees working inside grain bins with sweep augers, a string of recent, somewhat confusing, Interpretation Letters issued by OSHA effectively banned the practice outright.  Now, a groundbreaking settlement of an OSHA case against an Illinois grain company became a Final Order of the OSH Review Commission in January, and that settlement renewed the industry’s right to work inside grain bins with energized sweep augers, and provided real clarity as to the conditions that OSHA considers to be acceptable for that work.

Sweep Augers

A sweep auger is a mechanism that attaches to a pivot point in the center of a flat-bottom grain bin, and then travels at very slow speeds in a circle around the bin, pulling grain from the perimeter of the bin towards a floor sump in the center of the bin by a helical screw blade called a flighting, where the grain exits to another conveying system.  Generally, one or more workers will be positioned inside the bin behind the sweep auger to make regular adjustments to the auger to keep it advancing on track, and also to manually sweep grain not captured by the auger.

By design, a sweep auger is typically guarded from accidental contact on the top and backside, but it cannot be guarded on the front, or the flighting of the auger would not be able to contact the grain, and therefore, would not convey grain towards the center sump.  In other words, the basic functionality of a sweep auger would be nullified if it were guarded on all sides.

The Grain Standard

The legal landscape about the use of sweep augers with employees inside grain bins has had many throughout the Ag Industry confused for years.  Part of the confusion dates back to the original implementation of the Grain Handling Standard (29 C.F.R. § 1910.272).   The final Grain Standard, which was published in 1987, did not include any provision to address the use of sweep augers or the conditions in which an employee may work inside a grain bin with an energized sweep auger.  The final rule did, however, include a general requirement about equipment inside grain bins at 1910.272(g)(1)(ii):

“All mechanical, electrical, hydraulic, and pneumatic equipment which presents a danger to employees inside grain storage structures shall be deenergized and shall be disconnected, locked-out and tagged, blocked-off, or otherwise prevented from operating by other equally effective means or methods.”

Varying informal interpretations by OSHA about the language in the Standard: “which presents a danger” and “other equally effective means or methods,” resulted in inconsistent enforcement by OSHA in connection with sweep augers over the years.  A series of formal OSHA Interpretation Letters beginning in 2008, however, changed that landscape.

OSHA’s Sweep Auger Interpretation Letters

Around the same time that OSHA began to scrutinize the grain industry following a rash of engulfment incidents inside grain bins, OSHA also began to focus more attention on the issue of potential employee entanglement in the moving parts of sweep augers.  That attention was spurred in part by a letter to OSHA from an insurance agent seeking a formal interpretation of requirements related to grating/guarding on sumps inside grain bins with sweep augers.

The insurance agent’s letter described a scenario in which an employer required employees to maintain a distance of at least six feet behind a partially-guarded or unguarded sweep auger.  In a September 29, 2008 Interpretation Letter from OSHA responding to the insurance agent’s request, OSHA linked 1910.272(g)(1)(ii) to the use of sweep augers, and expressed the position that employees were prohibited from being inside grain bins with energized sweep augers unless the employer could demonstrate that appropriate protections were provided to prevent employees from exposure to the hazards of the moving machinery.  OSHA further stated that completely guarding the machine and a rope positioning system to prevent employee contact with the energized equipment (i.e., a leash for employees), would be effective methods to protect employees.  Finally, the letter opined that an administrative policy requiring employees to maintain a safe distance of six feet from partially-guarded and unguarded sweep augers was not an “otherwise equally effective means or method” that satisfies 1910.272(g)(1)(ii).

Shortly after OSHA issued the September 29, 2008 Interpretation Letter, the same insurance agent sent a second request to OSHA for further clarification, explaining that a sweep auger could not, by design, be completely guarded, and that the rope positioning system that OSHA suggested would be “extremely dangerous.”  This second letter specifically asked for OSHA’s interpretation as to whether an employee could be inside a grain bin with an energized sweep auger.  OSHA responded to this second request with another formal Interpretation Letter on Christmas Eve of 2009, with a direct “no.”  OSHA reasoned in the December 24, 2009 Interpretation Letter that if the methods proposed earlier by OSHA (i.e. guarding the operating side of the auger or putting a leash on employees) were ineffective, then the Agency was “not aware of any effective means or method that would protect a worker from the danger presented by an unguarded sweep auger operating inside a grain storage structure.”
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By Greta Ravitsky

The Labor and Employment practice at Epstein Becker Green publishes a regular newsletter called “Take 5: Views You Can Use,” which addresses 5 L&E topics around a related subject.  The January 2013 edition of Take 5 includes some important workplace health issues associated with implementation of the Affordable Care Act