On June 10, 2014, Epstein Becker Green’s national OSHA Practice Group presented a webinar regarding OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP). The SVEP is an OSHA enforcement program intended by OSHA to direct its enforcement resources at employers whom OSHA believes are “indifferent to their OSH Act obligations.”

The webinar covered:

  • What the SVEP is;

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?
    Continue Reading

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).
    Continue Reading

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 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.
Continue Reading

By Eric J. Conn

In August of 2010, a Delta Air Lines (“Delta”) baggage handler was fatally injured in a workplace accident, when the employee was ejected from a baggage tug vehicle while not wearing a seat belt.  As a result of this incident, Delta was cited by OSHA in February 2011 for alleged violations of regulations under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, including specifically, 1910.132—relating to personal protective equipment.

Corporate-Wide Settlement

To resolve the citations, Delta entered into a settlement agreement with OSHA on April 17, 2012 that required Delta to pay a modest penalty, $8,500, but also committed Delta to install seat belts on similar industrial vehicles operated at 90 of Delta’s locations nationwide over the next year.  Delta also committed to provide seatbelt training and to mandate the use of seatbelts for 16,000 of its employees.  Delta also agreed to waive its right to demand inspection warrants, and permit OSHA to monitor this issue. Finally, the agreement stipulates that general monitoring of implementation of this corporate-wide abatement will be conducted by a third party, not OSHA.

The Delta agreement was one of the first Corporate-Wide Settlement Agreement (“CSA”) reached under OSHA’s latest June 2011 Guidelines for Administering Corporate-Wide Settlement Agreements.  Under these guidelines OSHA expanded its use of the CSA to a broader range of enforcement cases, including high profile fatality cases.  This type is settlement has special implications for the airline industry, in which employers inherently operate at dozens or even hundreds of sites—magnifying both the potential penalties and compliance costs.  See our previous posts about the risks of enterprise enforcement.

Settlement in Context

Delta is a participant in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (“VPP”).  On its website OSHA states “VPP corporate applicants must have established, standardized corporate-level safety and health management systems, effectively implemented organization-wide as well as internal audit/screening processes that evaluate their facilities for safety and health performance.”  Despite Delta being an active partner with OSHA over the last decade, the settlement agreement appears to be favorable to the Agency.  On the other hand, Delta avoided inclusion in OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program (“SVEP”), which can be an option when there is a fatality and OSHA finds “one or more willful or repeated violations.”  If SVEP qualification was on the table in these negotiations, it would certainly have given OSHA substantial leverage.
Continue Reading