Special Emphasis Program

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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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

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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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:

By Paul H. Burmeister

The Site-Specific Targeting Program (SST) is OSHA’s primary “programmed” inspection plan for non-construction workplaces.  The SST Program is geared to address OSHA’s goal of reducing the number of injuries and illnesses that occur at individual workplaces, by directing enforcement resources to those workplaces where the highest rate of injuries and illness

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

Please join us for OSHA-related briefings in Columbus, OH (November 14, 2012) and Cincinnati, OH (November 15, 2012).  The events cover half a day, with breakfast and lunch included.  A copy of the detailed invitation is below.  Clink on the links above or contact us to RSVP for the upcoming briefings.

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

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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