Thanks to a recent federal appellate court decision, OSHA now has even more leeway to issue costly repeat citations to employers. As many employers know, there are different classifications for civil violations of OSHA regulations, including other-than-serious, serious, repeat, and willful. Penalties, both monetary and non-monetary, increase with higher classification levels. OSHA recently increased the maximum penalty for repeat violations to $129,336, and additional increases to the maximum penalty are expected. Click here to read the full client alert.
At this year’s National Safety Council (NSC) Congress & Expo in Indianapolis, OSHA’s Deputy Director of Enforcement Programs announced its preliminary list of the top ten citations issued for fiscal year 2017. OSHA’s top 10 violations for 2017 are as follows:
- Fall Protection in Construction (29 CFR 1926.501) 6,072 violations
Frequently violated requirements include unprotected edges and open sides in residential construction and failure to provide fall protection on low-slope roofs.
- Hazard Communication (29 CFR 1910.1200) 4,176 violations
Failure to have a written hazard communication program was the most frequently violated requirement, followed by failing to provide employee access to safety data sheets.
- Scaffolding (29 CFR 1926.451) 3,288 violations
Frequent violations include improper access to surfaces and lack of guardrails.
- Respiratory Protection (29 CFR 1910.134) 3,097 violations
Failure to establish a written respiratory protection program topped these violations, followed by failure to provide medical evaluations.
- Lockout/Tagout (29 CFR 1910.147) 2,877 violations
Frequent violations were inadequate worker training and failure to conduct periodic inspections.
- Ladders in Construction (29 CFR 1926.1053) 2,241 violations
Frequent violations include improper use of ladders, damaged ladders, and using the top step.
- Powered Industrial Trucks (29 CFR 1910.178) 2,162 violations
Violations included inadequate worker training and refresher training.
- Machine Guarding (29 CFR 1910.212) 1,933 violations
Exposure to/failure to guard points of operation topped these violations.
- Fall Protection—Training Requirements (29 CFR 1926.503) 1,523 violations
The most frequent violations include failure to train workers in identifying fall hazards and proper use of fall protection equipment.
- Electrical—Wiring Methods (29 CFR 1910.305) 1,405 violations
Violations of this standard included temporary writing in lieu of permanent wiring and were found in most general industry sectors, including food and beverage, retail, and manufacturing.
While OSHA’s top ten rankings vary little from year to year (2017’s top five violations remained the same), there is one new addition this year: Fall Protection – Training Requirements in the number 9 slot. The final report on the Top 10 violations for 2017 will be published in the December. Roughly 13,000 of these violations were in the construction industry, which is disproportionate to the employment in that industry compared with all others. This is likely reflective of the high turnover of employees and the number of employers who engage in construction work on an intermittent basis. The number of training and communication citations show the importance of paying attention to the administrative and paperwork regulations, and not just to the health and safety rules.
On January 13, 2017, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued Recommended Practices for Anti-Retaliation Programs, which are intended to allow employees to raise safety issues arising in the workplace without fear of retaliation. The 12-page document sets forth recommendations that apply to private and public employees protected by the more than twenty (20) whistleblower laws enforced by OSHA.
Some of the key items recommended by OSHA for an effective anti-retaliation program are:
- Management leadership, commitment, and accountability.
- System for listening to and resolving employees’ safety and compliance concerns.
- System for receiving and responding to reports of retaliation.
- Anti-retaliation training for employees and managers.
- Program oversight.
Further discussion of these key items may be found in the Recommended Practices. Employers should review these recommendations and the discussion surrounding them, as we anticipate that OSHA will review the items as part of any investigation or inspection.
There is much in the OSHA Guidance that is common sense, but there are several items included that employers will want to consider. They are reflected in the following quotes from the Guidance (emphasis supplied):
Employer policies must not discourage employees from reporting concerns to a government agency, delay employee reports to government, or require employees to report concerns to the employer first.
[Employers should…] Eliminate or restructure formal and informal workplace incentives that may encourage or allow retaliation or discourage reporting. Examples of incentives that may discourage reporting or encourage retaliation include rewarding employee work units with prizes for low injury rates or directly linking supervisors’ bonuses to lower reported injury rates.
Ensure that any employment agreement or policy that requires employees to keep employer information confidential does not prohibit or discourage employees from reporting or taking the steps necessary to report information reasonably related to concerns about hazards or violations of the law to any government agency. Steps that may be necessary include conferring with legal counsel, union or other worker representatives, or with medical professionals regarding the employee’s concerns. Employers should not use confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements to penalize, through lawsuits or otherwise, employees who report suspected violations of the law or take steps necessary to make such reports.
If possible, make the anti-retaliation investigation completely independent from the corporation’s legal counsel, who is obligated to protect the employer’s interests. If the employer’s legal representative is involved in conducting the investigation, fully inform the whistleblower that the investigator represents the employer’s interests and that any attorney-client privilege will only extend to the employer.”
To the degree that OSHA applies this Guidance in connection with investigations of alleged retaliation, employers should have a record that they considered and, to the degree applicable to their circumstances, adopted recommendations from it.
On November 28, 2016, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas denied industry employers’ efforts to enjoin OSHA from beginning to enforce portions of OSHA’s May 2016 final rule that purports to prohibit, among other things: 1) disciplinary action against employees for not immediately reporting work-related injuries or illnesses; and 2) blanket, automatic post-accident/injury drug and alcohol testing.
In May 2016, OSHA published a new record keeping rule that included, among other provisions, an express anti-retaliation prohibition. Commentary to OSHA’s final rule suggested that employer policies requiring immediate reporting of injuries could have a chilling effect on employees reporting slow-developing or chronic injuries or illnesses. According to OSHA, to be reasonable, the policies must allow for reporting within a reasonable time after the employee realizes that he or she has suffered a work-related injury instead of requiring reporting immediately following the occurrence of an injury. The Commentary also implied that post-incident drug or alcohol testing under a blanket policy could constitute prohibited retaliation. Instead, OSHA instructed employers to “limit post-incident testing to situations in which employee drug use is likely to have contributed to the incident, and for which the drug test can accurately identify impairment caused by drug use.”
The National Association of Manufacturers and similar industry groups and employers filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of Texas (TEXO ABC/AGC, Inc., et al. v. Perez, Civil Action No. 3:16-cv-01998-D) shortly after the final rule was published, challenging the rule’s anti-retaliation provisions and seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent OSHA from beginning to enforce the provisions until the Court decided their underlying legal challenge. Although the original effective date for the rule had been August 10, 2016, OSHA voluntarily postponed its enforcement of the anti-retaliation provisions until December 1, 2016 to allow the Court to rule on the request for preliminary injunctive relief.
The Court has now denied the employers’ request for injunctive relief on narrow grounds, holding that the employers could not demonstrate immediate, irreparable harm if enforcement of the anti-retaliation rule became effective. The Court’s decision was limited to the element of irreparable harm, and did not reach the underlying merits of the claim that the new rule creates an unlawful enforcement scheme under OSHA. In short, the Court has allowed OSHA to implement the new rule without deciding whether the rule is valid.
The Texas District Court’s ruling means that OSHA’s regulations are now in effect, allowing OSHA to investigate complaints by employees who have suffered retaliation under blanket drug and alcohol testing policies or who have suffered adverse or disciplinary action for “late” injury reporting. In addition to ongoing litigation, additional complications may result from additional/different regulatory changes made by the incoming new presidential administration early next year. For now, however, OSHA’s regulations are fully in effect. They have not been “approved,” however, so employers cited under them are able to challenge the citation based upon the rules’ invalidity. Employers are urged to consult with counsel to determine whether immediate changes to their accident reporting and drug testing policies and programs are needed, and, of course, whenever they receive a citation under these rules.
On October 28, 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States said that it would decide whether the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX as requiring schools to allow students to utilize restrooms that correspond to their gender identities is proper. The case of Gloucester County School Board v. GG, involves the claims of a biologically female high school student, who identifies as a transgender boy, seeking access to the boys’ bathroom at school. While the school board initially allowed the student to use the boys’ bathroom, it later adopted a policy requiring students to use bathrooms that correspond to their biological sex or a separate single-stall restroom.
Although the Gloucester County case relates to students, the Supreme Court’s decision should also have a significant impact on employers. Recently, both the EEOC and OSHA have taken new positions with regard to LGBT rights, including restroom access. The EEOC has taken the position that Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender applicants and employees against employment bias. The EEOC has aggressively enforced its new position. Recently, the EEOC announced that it had entered into a settlement with a West Virginia hospital requiring the hospital to make same-sex spouses eligible for employer-sponsored benefits. Similarly, both the EEOC and OSHA have issued guidance indicating that all employees, including transgender employees, should have access to restrooms that correspond to their gender identity.
Presumably, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Gloucester County case will provide clarity as to whether the courts will show deference to these agencies’ interpretations of the law. Employers seeking guidance regarding LGBT issues in their own workplace should contact any of the attorneys in the Frantz Ward Labor and Employment Practice Group.
Rule Also Has Potential Ramifications for Employers’ Post-Accident Drug-Testing Policies
OSHA recently released its Final Rule on the electronic recording and submission of injury and illness records. The Rule has several important provisions of which employers need to be aware, as well as some potential ramifications to long-standing employer practices.
Here are the basic requirements under the new Rule:
- Employers with 250 or more employees that are currently required to keep OSHA injury and illness records must electronically submit information from their OSHA 300, 300A, and 301 forms to OSHA
- Employers with 20-249 employees that are classified in certain industries with historically high rates of occupational injuries and illnesses must electronically submit information from their OSHA 300A forms to OSHA
- All employers required to do so must still otherwise maintain their OSHA 300, 300A, and 301 forms at their respective establishments
Click here to read the full client alert.
On November 2, 2015, President Obama signed the Bipartisan Budget Act (the “Act”) of 2015 into law. P.L. 114-74. The Act changes the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act of 1990, enacted at 28 U.S.C. §2461. These little-noticed changes have huge ramifications because they specifically remove OSHA from the list of agencies that are exempt from having the ability to raise fines. In other words, before this new law, OSHA’s fines stayed the same until Congress changed them. Now OSHA will raise them right away and will increase them every year.
The Act has a “Catch Up Adjustment” provision, which will allow OSHA to immediately increase its penalties by up to 150 percent no later than August 1, 2016. After the initial increase, OSHA will have to adjust its penalties annually based on the Consumer Price Index for the month of October. Experts say there will be an immediate expected increase anywhere from 52 percent to 80 percent. This means that fines for willful violations may increase from $70,000 up to $125,000, and fines for serious and other-than-serious violations may increase from $7,000 up to $12,500.
It is clear from this change that employers are at an even greater risk for substantial fines and penalties if and when OSHA opens an investigation in their workplaces. If you would like to speak to someone about how to prepare for an OSHA investigation, please contact our office.
We will continue monitoring for any updates from OSHA regarding the final rules implementing the Catch Up Adjustment, and any future annual adjustments to the penalties in place.
Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever (also known as Ebola or EVD) has caused significant concerns for Ohio employers, particularly as the connections between our local workforce and Dallas healthcare worker April Vinson continue to come to light. Vinson, who has tested positive for the virus, reportedly traveled by air to Cleveland on October 10 and returned to Dallas on October 14. Following her return to Dallas, on October 15, she was diagnosed with EVD. Vinson’s travel activity has sparked tension, fear and in some cases panic amongst those who may have come in contact with her, directly or indirectly.
Employers have been faced with a barrage of inquiries from employees and their labor organizations seeking assurances that appropriate policies have been put in place that protect against the potential of exposure to EVD in the workplace. An employer’s response depends upon several fact specific matters and may implicate dozens of laws and regulations designed to protect employees, including the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the National Labor Relations Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, state workers’ compensation laws, and the federal and state antidiscrimination laws. Employers, however, can and should get out in front of the issue by taking certain proactive steps. This client alert is intended to provide practical guidance for employers as they wade through the legal quagmire that surrounds this issue.
What should I be communicating to my employees?
Effective communications are imperative to an employer’s ability to address any real or perceived concerns about workplace exposure to EVD. Employees want to know how their employer will handle the situation if harm becomes imminent.
There are a number of measures an employer can take to better educate employees about EVD. First, if a significant number of employees have expressed concern about the potential for exposure to EVD, consider conducting an informational meeting to discuss the facts as we know them today. Provide information about how the virus spreads and any preventative measures that should be taken (i.e., washing hands frequently, using hand sanitizer, covering open cuts and wounds, etc.). Reassure your employees that the risk of an outbreak in the United States is very low.
According to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), EVD is only transmitted through contact with blood and other bodily fluids of an infected person. People can also become infected from indirect contact by having broken skin or mucous membranes come in contact with materials or utensils contaminated with the body fluids of an infected person. Casual contact, however, generally does not pose a risk of infection. The CDC and other public health officials remain confident that the U.S. will be able to stop further spread of EVD through thorough case review, isolation of infected individuals, contact tracing of people exposed to the virus, and isolation of contacts if they develop symptoms.
If you work in an industry where bloodborne pathogen training is required, review that training with your employees. You do not need to develop new training, as the bloodborne pathogen training is designed to cover all potentially infectious diseases, including Ebola. Remind your employees that they have already been trained to use universal precautions, review the training so that it is fresh in their minds, and answer any additional questions they may have. This should help to put their minds at ease.
You also may want to prepare your Human Resources personnel and/or supervisors on how to respond to employee questions and concerns in an appropriate manner. Consider designating a point person or team to disseminate additional information if and when it becomes available. This will help ensure that a consistent message is conveyed to all employees and that employees’ concerns are treated respectfully and consistently.
What can I be doing now to help my employees?
The CDC and the Ohio Department of Health have issued various protocols and guidelines pertaining to the exposure and spread of EVD. It is important to continuously review and monitor the latest of these publications.
Review your emergency preparedness plans. Have an idea of how you are going to respond if an employee falls sick on the job. Require employees to immediately report any potential symptoms of Ebola. Collaborate with health authorities regarding issues or questions that may arise if you were to have a reasonable basis for believing that an employee may have been exposed to Ebola or may actually have the virus. Consider whether you will need an isolation room, a disinfecting strategy and a method of contact tracing with respect to an infected or exposed employee. Finally, although employee medical information needs to be kept confidential, if one of your employees is diagnosed with EVD, you will need to immediately communicate with all other employees to protect their health and safety.
If you work in the healthcare industry, keep abreast of the most recent guidelines issued by the CDC for healthcare workers and train affected employees on the recommended infection control precautions. Labor and trade organizations representing healthcare workers have called for the following universal practices:
- Provide the highest optimal standard of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers;
- Provide extensive hands-on training, ongoing education and review of PPE, equipment and infection control protocols;
- Identify adequate numbers of appropriately prepared staff to safely meet patient needs.
In addition, because other infectious diseases may present symptoms similar to EVD, it is important to apply standard measures of precaution in all healthcare facilities – such as prevention of needle sticks and sharps injuries, safe phlebotomy, hand hygiene, rational use of PPE, regular and rigorous environmental cleaning, decontamination of surfaces and equipment and safe management of soiled linen and health care waste. It is also a good idea to review respiratory safety, including the proper fit an wear of a respirator, as well as proper cleaning methods.
As information relating to EVD is quickly changing, it is necessary within the healthcare industry to designate a point person or team capable of providing care to a patient who may present signs of infection. This point person, or team, also should be tasked with keeping abreast of the latest recommended procedures and disseminating that information to other caregivers.
How do I manage requests for leave?
Employees have the right to remove themselves from work situations if they reasonably believe that imminent, serious danger to their life or health exists. The OSH Act requires employers to provide employees a workplace that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” Employees who voice safety concerns also have protection from retaliation. Employers also may face intentional tort or workers’ compensation claims for failing to provide a safe work environment. Each request for leave should be reviewed separately to determine whether leave is appropriate under the circumstances.
In addition, employers generally are not required to pay employees for any such requested leave. It is important to review applicable leave of absence policies and collective bargaining agreements to determine whether paid leave ought to be provided. Employers also will need to insure that any deductions from pay do not affect an exempt employee’s status under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Where can I find more information about Ebola?
There are many organizations that provide up to date information about Ebola to the general public including:
New Reporting Requirements:
OSHA has issued a final rule that modifies recordkeeping and reporting requirements for employers. The most significant change requires an employer to notify OSHA within twenty-four (24) hours of when an employee suffers a work-related, in-patient hospitalization, amputation, or loss of an eye. Under the prior rule, employers were only required to report in-patient hospitalizations of three employees or more. OSHA had not previously required employers to report amputations or losses of an eye. It should be noted that “amputations” include partial amputations, such as the loss of a fingertip, as well as medical amputations resulting from irreparable damage to a body part.
Employers are still required to report any fatality to OSHA within eight (8) hours of learning of the fatality. Employers also are required to report any death that occurs within thirty (30) days of a work-related injury, regardless of whether the death was a direct result of the injury.
Employers can report fatalities, in-patient hospitalizations, amputations, or losses of an eye in any of the following ways:
- by telephone or in person to the OSHA Area Office nearest the site of the incident;
- by telephone to the OSHA toll-free central telephone number, 1-800-321-OSHA (1-800-321-6742); or
- by electronic submission using the fatality/injury/illness reporting application located on OSHA’s public website at https://www.osha.gov/.
All employers, even those exempt from keeping injury and illness records, are subject to the reporting requirements described above.
New Recordkeeping Requirements for Certain Industries:
OSHA also updated the list of industries that are exempt from the requirement to routinely keep injury and illness records. The previous list of exempt industries was based on the Standard Industrial Classification system (“SIC”). The new list is based on the North American Industry Classification System (“NAICS”).
This update will result in recordkeeping requirements for many previously exempt employers. For example, the following industries will now be required to keep injury and illness records: bakeries; automobile dealers; automotive parts, accessories and tire stores; lessors of real estate; consumer goods rental; commercial and industrial machinery and equipment rental and leasing; ambulatory heath care services, community food and housing and emergency/other relief services; museums and similar institutions; and performing arts companies.
For a complete list of industries that are no longer exempt from the record-keeping requirements, please visit OSHA’s website here.
In 2010, OSHA began a program to identify certain employers as severe violators. Placement in the Severe Violator Enforcement Program (“SVEP”) resulted in adverse publicity, multiple inspections, inspections of other facilities and higher-than-normal penalties. Not surprisingly, there were a number of criticisms of the program. One of them was that the program had no established way to get off it. OSHA has now issued formal guidance on this issue that can be found here. OSHA’s Directorate of Enforcement Programs (“DEP”) has determined that employers can get out of the program after three years from the final disposition of the inspection items that resulted in placement in the SVEP. Final disposition includes failures to contest the citation, settlements, unappealed Review Commission decisions, and Court of Appeals decisions. To escape the SVEP, the employer must have fully abated all SVEP-related citations at any of its establishments. All penalties must have been fully paid. For cases with national corporate-wide settlements, the DEP will handle requests for removal, and will consider all terms of the settlement (which usually would include safety programs and outside consultancies. See the Guidelines for Administering Corporate-Wide Settlement Agreements, here) For more local situations, the Regional Administrator or designee will have discretion to remove employers from the list.