A United States District Court in Texas has refused to dismiss a law suit challenging OSHA’s practice of allowing union representatives and organizers to serve as “employee representatives” in inspections of non-union worksites. If the Court ultimately sustains the plaintiff’s claims, unions will lose another often valuable organizing tool that has provided them with visibility

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 Amanda Strainis-Walker

OSHA’s recent string of hotel inspections in response to formal safety and health complaints filed by UNITE-HERE and others on behalf of hotel housekeepers is under serious scrutiny from the House of Representatives Subcommittee that oversees OSHA’s operations.  OSHA leadership is defending its decision to inspect hotels, and is signaling that OSHA