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;

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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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?
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Following the announcement last week of the first ever Deferred Prosecution Agreement in an OSHA matter, the Editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter interviewed Eric J. Conn, Head of Epstein Becker Green’s national OSHA Practice Group, who was involved in the matter, about OSHA enforcement trends in general, and OSHA criminal prosecutions in

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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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

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 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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