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“OSHA’s Wall Of Shame – With Limited Staff, Agency Targets “Severe Violators”

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Source: FairWarning.org – By Paul Feldman and Stuart Silverstein

Soon after beginning their cleanup of a fume-filled tanker car at an Omaha, Nebraska rail maintenance yard, Adrian LaPour and Dallas Foulk were dead.

An explosion that April 2015 afternoon trapped LaPour in a flash fire inside the car and hurled Foulk out the top to his death.

Six months later their employer, Nebraska Railcar Cleaning Services, was hammered by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration with seven citations for “egregious, willful” workplace violations, along with 26 other charges. The agency proposed fines of nearly $1 million. To top it off, OSHA announced that it was tossing the company into its Severe Violator Enforcement Program, or SVEP.

Six years into the severe violator program – arguably the broadest workplace safety initiative launched during the Obama administration – more than 500 businesses are on its list of bad actors. They include corporate giants such as DuPont and International Paper, each with tens of thousands of employees, as well as more than 300 construction firms, many with fewer than a dozen workers.

Just last week an auto parts maker in Alabama, Ajiin USA, was labeled a severe violator and hit with proposed fines of $2.5 million related to the June death of a 20-year old worker. Regina Allen Elsea, who was two weeks away from getting married, was crushed when a robotic machine she was doing maintenance on abruptly restarted. Ajiin, which supplies automakers Kia and Hyundai, said in a statement it will continue to cooperate with OSHA and that “safety has always been our guiding principle.”

Along with subjecting employers to a form of public shaming, the severe violator program helps OSHA work out settlements intended to force companies to clean up their job safety practices. The program, which replaced a George W. Bush administration initiative that an inspector general’s audit derided as ineffectual, also can result in extra inspections, sometimes at multiple sites, and force companies to hire new safety personnel. The effort, though, faces an uncertain future under the Trump administration.

The severe violator list represents an attempt to deal with an overwhelming regulatory challenge. With OSHA and its state counterparts relying on fewer than 1,850 inspectors to monitor about 8 million workplaces, it would take federal officials 145 years to inspect each job site once, union researchers estimate. The aim of the list is to let OSHA’s limited staff zero in on some of the worst offenders.

David Michaels, the assistant secretary of labor in charge of OSHA, said in an interview with FairWarning that “even if we doubled our inspectors, we would still be able to only get to a small portion of employers. And so we need tools like SVEP, which extend our capabilities and encourage more employers to do the right thing even without inspections.”

But the targeted nature of the program creates a Catch-22. The death of a worker is clearly the worst thing that can happen at a job site. Yet with about 4,800 workplace fatalities a year nationally, putting every company with a death on the severe violator list would overwhelm OSHA and defeat the goal of tougher enforcement for a subset of the worst offenders. For that reason, the death of a worker will put a company on the list only if the circumstances are particularly flagrant or reflect a pattern of reckless conduct. In 2015 only one out of every roughly 200 employers with an on-the-job fatality landed on the list.

At the same time, it’s not certain that the program has effectively deterred recalcitrant employers, as OSHA lacks any comprehensive assessment of its performance. For evidence of the impact, OSHA officials point to settlements they have reached with companies on the list. “There hasn’t been a really good objective evaluation,” said MIT Professor Thomas A. Kochan, co-director of MIT’s Institute for Work and Employment Research.

One critic, John Newquist, (a LinkedIn connection of mine) and former OSHA official in Chicago, said his sense is that among employers, “There’s no fear of OSHA at all.”

Michaels, who will leave the agency by the January 20, 2017, presidential inauguration, expressed hope that the Trump administration won’t dismantle the severe violator effort or other enforcement initiatives. He said tough enforcement protects responsible employers because it “levels the playing field” between them and competitors who skimp on safety. Still, the anti-regulation views of Trump cabinet picks including Andrew Puzder, the president-elect’s choice for labor secretary, are raising expectations of cutbacks in workplace enforcement.

Nebraska Railcar –- currently the target, several sources say, of a Justice Department criminal investigation of last year’s explosion –- highlights how long it can take a wayward company to be put into the severe violator program. Jacob Mack, who worked for the company in 2013, says he told OSHA about brutal conditions long before the deadly blast. “Not a day goes by I don’t remember the hell there,” Mack said.

The company wasn’t listed until after the explosion even though it, as well as other businesses controlled by Nebraska Railcar’s majority owner, Steven Braithwaite, had repeatedly been cited by OSHA dating back to 2005. That includes a 2013 citation involving a fire risk from oil storage tanks. Nebraska Railcar stayed off the list, though, partly because its prior violations didn’t involve hazards the agency deemed high-priority, such as falls, amputations, cave-ins and exposure to toxic chemicals.

(Nebraska Railcar is contesting its current OSHA citations, as are other companies cited in this story that haven’t reached a settlement with the agency. Nebraska Railcar and most of the other companies have not responded to requests for comment.)

Case Farms, a leading poultry processor with plants in Ohio and North Carolina, finally landed on the list in 2015 after being cited for more than 350 violations over a 25-year period, according to OSHA. The case, which processes nearly 3 million chickens a week for fast food chains and supermarkets, last year was fined $861,500 for 55 violations, including amputation and fall hazards, at its Winesburg, Ohio, plant.

Sometimes disaster has struck even after companies were put in the program. One such case, in October, spurred a public outcry in Boston. Two laborers working for Atlantic Drain Service died after being trapped in a trench that was inundated by water, dirt, and debris after a pipe burst. Atlantic Drain had been on the severe violator list since 2012.

The October deaths “were entirely preventable,” The Boston Globe wrote in an editorial, “had city and state officials taken minimal steps to investigate the construction company before issuing permits.”

Whatever the shortcomings of the severe violator program, labor advocates say, the wide range of companies it snares -– and the number and gravity of their violations -– underscore its importance and the need to protect workers from callous bosses. OSHA’s other options are limited. The agency lacks the authority to shut down dangerous workplaces and its fines generally remain modest despite an increase that took effect in August.

“OSHA is one-eighth the size of the EPA, it has the lowest penalties of almost any government agency – but even though it is small, it is critical that enforcement is maintained,” said Deborah Berkowitz, the OSHA chief of staff from 2009 to 2013. The severe violator list, she conceded, is “not an end-all tool,” but an important tool.

An example OSHA officials point to is Ashley Furniture, the nation’s largest retailer of home furnishings. It was listed last year after being cited for 38 violations, 12 of them willful, and assessed $1.76 million in fines. Inspections showed more than 1,000 work-related injuries in less than four years at its plant in Arcadia, Wisconsin.

Over 100 of the injuries took place on similar woodworking machines, including a July 2014 incident in which a worker lost three fingers. In June, the privately held firm settled the case, agreeing to pay penalties of $1.75 million and to adopt safety measures in Arcadia and at three other plants in Wisconsin and Mississippi.

Some corporate defense lawyers say being labeled a “severe violator” is such a black eye that it strongly motivates companies to avoid trouble with OSHA. However, they criticize the program for lacking due process, because companies are labeled severe violators even as they appeal citations.

“You are dumped into SVEP essentially the day that the citations are issued and a citation is nothing more than an allegation,” said Eric J. Conn, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who specializes in OSHA defense cases. “Having the federal agency that is responsible for safety and health branding that employer as a bad actor … absolutely has significant consequences to the employer’s business.”

In the meantime, corporate lawyers say, competitors or critics can take advantage of the situation. If residents near a listed site “don’t like your company, to begin with, this is more ammunition they can use to go to a zoning board to block permits for expansion,” said Adele Abrams, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney.

On-the-job deaths can keep companies in the program for years. DuPont was listed after four workers at its La Porte, Texas, chemical plant died of asphyxiation in 2014. The disaster occurred after a supply line released more than 20,000 pounds of deadly methyl mercaptan gas. The company, which manufactures pesticides at the Texas plant, was assessed $273,000 for eight OSHA violations. DuPont said it couldn’t comment because it is appealing its case.

AMF Bowling Centers, Inc. has been on the list since 2011, when a worker at its lanes in Addison, Texas, was fatally pulled into an automatic pin-setting machine while trying to clear a jam. OSHA had previously cited AMF in 2007 and 2008 for failing to provide proper machine guarding on pinsetters. The case was settled, with AMF agreeing to pay more than $90,000 in penalties.

Oil services giant Nabors Completion and Production Services Co. was listed following the death of welder Dustin Payne, a 28-year-old former Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was killed in a 2014 explosion when vapors ignited inside a tank he was welding in North Dakota.

Houston-based Nabors, which boasts of operating the world’s largest land-based drilling rig fleet, was assessed $97,200 in fines and charged with a willful violation for not having thoroughly cleaned the tank of oil residue before sending Payne in.

“Dustin Payne and his fiancée should be discussing marriage and their future together. Instead, she is left stricken and trying to move forward without him,” Eric Brooks, OSHA’s area director in Bismarck, N.D., said in a news release.

International Paper Co. was added to the list last year after a 57-year-old mechanic was killed in a fire while replacing filter bags in machinery at its Ticonderoga, N.Y., plant. The bags contained combustible dust that ignited.

In assessing $211,000 in fines, OSHA said the company had failed to supply fire-resistant clothing or adequate training. The firm had previously been cited for failing to conduct annual inspections of ignitable equipment at company sites in Chicago and Newark, Ohio.

Although big companies draw the most widespread attention, the employers most commonly labeled severe violators are small construction firms with high emphasis hazards related to falls or excavation cave-ins. Yet small construction firms often elude the follow-up inspections that are supposed to be a key feature of the program.

A FairWarning analysis of the current list of 523 severe violators found that 167 had not been re-inspected, and almost all were construction firms. In many cases, the firms had shut down their worksites or went out of business before inspectors could return.

Eric Frumin, safety and health director of the union coalition Change to Win, said given the way the industry operates, OSHA can be “powerless to find and vigorously confront the worst actors.”

A trench collapse last year in New York that put a construction firm on the list also led to criminal charges. The cave-in collapse in lower Manhattan buried Carlos Moncayo, 22, under tons of dirt. His employer, Sky Materials Corp. of Maspeth, was fined $140,000 and listed for willfully failing to provide cave-in protection

Last month, Sky’s site foreman was convicted of criminally negligent homicide in the death of Moncayo, one of at least 18 New York City construction workers who died on the job in 2015. The project’s general contractor, Harco Construction LLC, was convicted of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in June.

Deadly incidents also have brought rail tank car cleaning companies into the program. At Nebraska Railcar, the disaster came soon after the workers returned from a lunch break and started digging out thick residue from an oil tanker. The lone survivor among the three employees working on the tanker, Joe Coschka, 36, said he was just outside the car, lowering buckets of the blacktop like material into a 55-gallon drum.

Coschka said the odor from inside the tanker was powerful, and that an air monitor was beeping. Even so, he said he assumed a supervisor who should have known better than him whether the air was a hazard, should have informed workers to evacuate the tank car immediately.

Soon Coschka heard a loud hiss, and then sparks started shooting out of the tanker. The next thing he remembers is dangling from the side of the car, still attached to his safety harness, with a fire raging inside. “And I knew Adrian was in there, and Dallas was looking pretty bad on the ground. I just knew I had to get out of there,” said Coschka. He managed to scramble to safety despite suffering back and shoulder injuries.

Coschka remains haunted by the disaster. Although he sometimes blames himself for not questioning the foreman who sent the workers into the tanker car, most of his anger is aimed at Braithwaite, the main owner of the business. He said he wishes the tougher OSHA actions had come sooner. Referring to the years of citations against Braithwaite’s companies, Coshka added: “It’s just sad because this guy dropped the ball so many times and he just keeps getting away with it.” Coschka had started at Nebraska Railcar only a month earlier.

Source: FairWarning.org – By Paul Feldman and Stuart Silverstein

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“What To Expect From OSHA In 2016 And Beyond”

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OSHA’S ENFORCEMENT INITIATIVES

Though a number of OSHA’s enforcement initiatives may not technically be considered new for 2016, we can expect that OSHA will continue to increasingly issue citations under the General Duty Clause and the multi-employer worksite doctrine. We can also expect OSHA to continue to focus its attention on the training and protection provided to temporary employees, especially under OSHA’s Powered Industrial Truck (forklift) standard, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) standards and Lockout Tagout (LOTO) regulations. OSHA has also been stepping up its workplace heat illness initiative, sending expansive subpoena requests to dozens of employers engaged in industries where employees typically are potentially exposed to heat,including manufacturing and construction, even if no injuries or illnesses have been reported. As such, it is important that employers remain aware of these issues to try to limit liability in 2016.

INCREASED OSHA PENALTIES

The new bipartisan budget, passed by both the House and the Senate and signed by President Obama on November 2, 2015, contains provisions that will raise OSHA penalties for the first time in 25 years. The budget allows for an initial penalty “catch up adjustment,” which must be in place by August 1, 2016.

The maximum initial “catch up adjustment” will be based on the difference between the October 2015 Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the October 1990 CPI. The October 2015 CPI was released on November 17, 2015, and came in at 237.838. Based on the October 1990 CPI of 133.500, the maximum catch up adjustment will be approximately 78.16% and the new maximum penalties could be:

Current

August 2016

Other than Serious violations:
$7,000

$12,471

Serious violations:
$7,000

$12,471

Willful violations:
$70,000

$126,000

Repeat violations:
$70,000

$126,000

After the initial catch up adjustment, OSHA will be required to implement annual cost of living increases, with the adjustment tied to the year over year percentage increase in the CPI. Adjustments must be made by mid-January each subsequent year.

OSHA has the option to implement a catch up adjustment less than the maximum if the Agency determines increasing penalties by the maximum amount would (1) have a “negative economic impact” or the social costs of the increase outweigh the benefits and (2) the Office of Management and Budget agrees. However, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels has long advocated for a substantial increase in penalties so it is difficult to envision the Agency seeking anything other than the maximum increase.

INCREASED USE OF THE GENERAL DUTY CLAUSE

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s General Duty Clause, designated as section 5(a)(1), employers are required to protect employees from recognized workplace hazards that are correctible and likely to cause serious harm or death. Where OSHA lacks a specific standard to address a workplace hazard, the Agency has increasingly used the general duty clause as a “gap filler” for enforcement. OSHA thus has used the General Duty Clause to cite employers for a wide range of alleged hazards, and to enforce policies the Agency issued through guidance documents rather than formal regulations, including: ergonomics, illness due to exposure to heat and cold, arc flash/arc blast, combustible dust, chemicals and other hazardous materials for which there is no existing regulation, and fall protection.
In 2016, we expect that the Agency will use the General Duty Clause to cite employers for repetitive tasks causing ergonomic issues and musculoskeletal disorders. Moreover, in light of the increasing publicity given to the hazard because of tragic incidents involving workplace shootings, OSHA will continue its emphasis on citing employers for workplace violence incidents and violations, particularly in certain industries such as healthcare, certain retail facilities and public transportation such as taxi cabs. Employers should maintain policies and training on these issues to prevent liability and business disruptions from OSHA’s increased use of the General Duty Clause in 2016.

OSHA TO REDUCE RELIANCE ON PERMISSIBLE EXPOSURE LIMITS

In a move that could drastically affect day to day operations at a large number of employers, OSHA has signaled in a new permissible exposure limit (PEL) request for information from industry and other stakeholders that it plans to “revoke a small number of obsolete PELs.” Though the rulemaking did not list the PELs OSHA is considering revoking, the revocation of any PELs opens the door for greater use of the General Duty Clause to regulate employee exposure through standards that are not generally industry standards such as NIOSH standards or ACGIH recommended exposure limits. Several commentators believe the PEL walk back is simply OSHA’s attempt to increase employer liability for more citations while avoiding formal rulemaking to establish PELs. Combined with higher fines to be implemented by August, 2016, this could be seen as a new revenue stream for OSHA.

MULTI-EMPLOYER WORKSITE DOCTRINE

The presence of multiple employers, contractors, consultants, and temporary workers at the same workplace is increasingly common in construction, manufacturing and other industries. OSHA has taken note and made the prosecution of multiple employers at the same workplace a major Agency priority. Under OSHA’s Multi-Employer Worksite policy, more than one employer may be citable for a hazardous condition that violates an OSHA standard, so long as OSHA determines that they violated a duty under the Act. This can occur even when the employer being cited had no employees exposed to the hazard in issue. The Agency will use a two-step process to determine whether more than one employer is to be cited.

The first step is to determine whether the employer is a creating, exposing, correcting, or controlling employer. A creating employer, who caused a hazardous condition, is citable even if the only employees exposed are those of other employers at the cite. The exposing employer, whose own employees are exposed to the hazardous condition, is citable if (1) it knew of the hazardous condition or failed to exercise reasonable diligence to discover the condition, (2) it failed to take steps consistent with its authority to protect its employees. The correcting employer, who is responsible for correcting the hazardous condition, is citable if it fails to meet its obligations of correcting the condition. The controlling employer, who has supervisory authority over the worksite and the power to correct safety and health violations or require others to correct them, is citable if it fails to exercise reasonable care to prevent and detect violations on the site. In General Industry the host employer is typically the controlling employer, while in the Construction Industry it is the General Contractor, and, therefore, carry a higher compliance burden than other employers.

If OSHA determines an employer falls into one (or more) of these four categories, OSHA will then determine whether the employer met its obligations with regard to preventing and correcting the violations. It is important to note that the Multi-Employer Worksite Policy can also be utilized for criminal prosecution of employers if the underlying elements are present which require (1) a fatality, (2) violation of a specific regulation, (3) the violation was willful and (4) there is a causal connection between the violation and the death. As OSHA continues its aggressive application of the Multi-Employer Worksite Doctrine, employers should be wary as to potential liabilities for contractors, temporary workers, and other non-employees at their worksites.

FINAL IMPLEMENTATION OF NEW GLOBALLY HARMONIZED SYSTEM (GHS) STANDARDS

OSHA adopted new HCS 2012 SDS standards on December 1, 2013. Chemical end users must come into compliance with the new SDSs passed down from up-stream suppliers and manufacturers by June 1, 2016. Employers should not simply swap in a new SDS for an old MSDS and throw away the old MSDS. Previous MSDSs should be kept on file for several reasons:

to provide proof that an employer was compliant with old HazCom standard.
the prior MSDSs can be useful evidence in defending against worker’s compensation claims by employees for occupational diseases alleged to have arisen from exposure to hazardous materials during the course of employment and
the prior MSDS can be useful evidence in defending third party toxic tort claims alleged to have been caused by exposure to hazardous materials that the employer may have incorporated into products manufactured and sold by the employer or by products that are resold or distributed by the employer.
The new SDSs also presents an opportunity for employers to update their training, hazard communication, and safety procedures for chemicals. The new SDS includes sixteen separate sections, some of which are similar or identical to the existing MSDS sections. There are, however, a number of significant changes and compliance challenges.

When OSHA begins enforcement against employers on June 1, 2016, it will focus on whether the employer has reviewed the SDSs to identify any new risks as well as whether it has evaluated its existing compliance programs in light of the sixteen requirements in the new SDSs.

The Hazard Communication Standard affects nearly every employer, from chemical manufacturers to retailers to hotels whose employees work with cleaning agents. Employers need to be aware of their obligations to communicate hazards of chemical substance, and must have a process for updating existing labels, SDS, hazard assessments, and training programs to comply with HCS 2012. Here are some best practices for employers to follow:

Employers should review the new SDSs in a timely fashion upon receipt.
If the employer does not receive the SDSs in a timely fashion, it should promptly communicate in writing with the manufacturer to obtain the SDSs. If the employer does not receive the SDSs by June 1, 2016, OSHA has indicated that it will not cite employers who show “good faith efforts” to obtain the SDSs.
Employers should evaluate the workplace using the SDSs to identify hazardous chemicals and how their employees may be exposed.
Employers whose employees work with or around hazardous chemicals must ensure that they review the updated SDSs and assess each of the employer’s underlying compliance programs (e.g., emergency action plan, storage of flammable and combustible materials, PPE, respiratory protection, etc.) that may be impacted by the SDSs.
Employers should ensure that employees who work with or around hazardous chemicals are trained to recognize the pictograms and hazard warnings that will be required under the new Hazard Communication Standard. Employers should document this training and develop mechanisms to ensure that employees understand the hazards of working with or around hazardous chemicals.
TEMPORARY EMPLOYEES

In 2014, OSHA implemented an initiative to protect temporary employees under the premise that those workers are not provided the same level of training and protections as full-time employees. Under this initiative, OSHA inspectors are required to inquire during inspections whether the inspected worksite has temporary employees and determine whether those employees are exposed to hazardous conditions. Moreover, during the inspection, OSHA will also inquire as to whether the training provided to the temporary workers is in a language and vocabulary the workers can understand. If OSHA determines that the host employer failed to provide adequate training or protections to the temporary employees, OSHA could issue citations not only to the temporary staffing agency, but also the host employer under the multi-employer worksite doctrine. In order to enforce this initiative, OSHA has hired compliance officers who are bilingual (or certified interpreters) to conduct employee interviews of employees to determine if the employees understood the training. If the training were in English and the employee is not fluent in English, then the training is not “effective” and the employer can be cited. Likewise, if the training material is in writing and the employee is illiterate, the training may not be considered “effective.”

POTENTIAL RECORDKEEPING RULE CHANGES

One anticipated rule would require employers to submit their injury and illness records “regularly,” electronically instead of only when OSHA requests them through a formal request. With such disclosure, the OSHA 300 Log and supporting documents could be used to trigger OSHA inspections. In addition, the records would be made available to the public so anyone could see an employer’s injury and illness rates. This opens employers to risk of adverse public reaction if such information becomes available in the media, without understanding the context of the records and the complexity of the recordkeeping requirements so the public may erroneously construe the injury and illness rate as creating an unsafe workplace. This disclosure could also result in additional worker’s compensation litigation by attorneys who could utilize this information to file claims.

Even more concerning for employers is another anticipated rule that would make the recordkeeping requirements an “ongoing obligation.” OSHA is expected to interpret this change to allow OSHA to cite recordkeeping violations up to five years old, well past the OSH Act’s six month statute of limitations. This is in direct contradiction to well established case law, including a 2012 D.C. Circuit decision affirming the six month limit.1 There is hope, however, through a recent Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals2 case that prevents OSHA from reinterpreting a rule in such a way that is “plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.” This will be an area to which employers should pay close attention.

NEW SILICA RULE EXPECTED TO BE RELEASED BY JANUARY 2017

Crystalline silica particles are commonly dispersed in the air when workers cut, grind, crush, or drill silica-containing materials such as concrete, masonry, tile, and rock. OSHA estimates that 2.2 million American workers are regularly exposed to respirable silica, with 1.85 million of those workers in the construction industry. Other common sources of exposure are building products manufacturing, sandblasting and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of oil and gas wells. Crystalline silica exposure can cause lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and silicosis, an incurable and sometimes fatal lung disease.

OSHA has outlined a new Silica Rule as a top priority since the beginning of the Obama administration. The Agency sent a draft rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in February 2011, and has pledged to release a final rule by January 2017. (See the notice of proposed rulemaking at https://federalregister.gov/a/2013-20997).

OSHA’s Silica Rule that will establish permissible silica exposure limits for all workers at 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, cutting allowable exposures in half in general industry and maritime businesses, and even more in construction. The proposed rule also includes preferred methods for controlling exposure — such as using water saws to reduce airborne silica dust. The rule will also require that employers conduct periodic air monitoring, limit workers’ access to areas where exposures are high, enforce effective methods for reducing exposures, provide medical exams for workers who have been exposed to elevated levels of silica, and require training for workers about silica-related hazards.

ENHANCED CRIMINAL LIABILITY

OSHA has had the ability to seek criminal liability against employers and managers since the advent of the law if a willful violation of a regulation causes the death of an employee, although a conviction is a misdemeanor with a six month period of imprisonment and a $500,000 penalty for the employer and $250,000 for an individual.

This seemingly minimal criminal liability has now given rise to a recent criminal enforcement agenda announced by the Department of Justice on December 17, 2015, to seek additional liability against employers when there is a workplace safety violation having nothing to do with a fatality. The DOJ will seek criminal penalties under other criminal laws for lying during an OSHA inspection, making false statements in government documents, obstructing justice and tampering with witnesses which are felonies and can result in imprisonment ranging from 5 to 20 years and enhanced monetary penalties.

With the advent of this criminal prosecution initiative, employers must be extremely careful during OSHA inspections, particularly in the aftermath of a fatality or serious injury, not to engage in any conduct that remotely approaches lying during an inspection, obstruction of justice, tampering with witnesses and must engage knowledgeable counsel at the outset to be able to understand and avoid these liabilities.

OSHA’S USE OF THE RAPID RESPONSE FORM

On January 1, 2015, OSHA’s more robust reporting rules took effect, requiring employers to report all work-related in-patient hospitalizations, amputations, and losses of an eye within 24 hours of the event:

Within eight (8) hours after the death of any employee as a result of a work-related incident (which includes heart attacks);” and
Within twenty-four (24) hours after the in-patient hospitalization of one or more employees or the occurrence of an injury to an employee involving an amputation or loss of an eye, as a result of a work-related incident.”
To streamline these reports, OSHA adopted new procedures: the Interim Enforcement Procedures for New Reporting Requirements. Under these Interim Enforcement Procedures, OSHA triages new reports to determine whether the report warrants an inspection or a “Rapid Response Investigation” (RRI). “Category 1” reports — including fatalities, multiple hospitalizations, repeat offenders, and imminent dangers — will automatically trigger an on-site inspection. “Category 2” reports may trigger an on-site inspection if they involved two of the following factors: continued exposures, safety program failure, serious hazards, temporary workers, referrals from other agencies, and pending whistleblower complaints. If Category 2 factors are not present, the Agency may initiate a Rapid Response Investigation in lieu of an inspection.

OSHA may initiate a Rapid Response Investigation where the Area Director believes that there is a “reasonable basis that a violation or hazard exists.” The Agency will direct employers to “find out what led to the incident and what modifications can you make now to prevent future injuries to other workers.” The Agency will fax a letter instructing employers to “immediately conduct your own investigation into the reported incident and make any necessary changes to avoid further incidents,” and complete a “Non-Mandatory Incident Investigation” form (attached to the letter). The employer’s report and investigation will be used by the Agency to determine whether to conduct its own inspection. A word of caution, these rapid response forms could be used against employers as admissions of liability for a violation of a regulation as well as grounds for OSHA to find a “willful” violation if the employer responds in a way that it appears to admit prior knowledge of the hazard which could be an “admission” of liability. Accordingly, as rapid response forms are increasingly used in 2016, employers should write only limited, careful responses and avoid any language that might support an admission. Employers must preserve attorney client privilege in the conduct of their underlying root cause analysis investigation and disclosures on the forms, and seek the advice of counsel where necessary.

HOW TO DEAL WITH AN AGING WORKFORCE

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, one in every five American workers is over 65, and in 2020, one in four American workers will be over 55. Though the overall effects of an aging workplace are not entirely clear, there are several precautions employers should take to protect aging employees:

Workstations and job tasks must be matched to the needs of the individual employee.
Older workers tend to have fewer accidents but when they do have accidents, the injuries tend to be more severe resulting in a longer recovery time.
Older workers tend to experience more back injuries.
Older workers are more likely to develop musculoskeletal injuries because they have been performing repetitive motions for a longer period of time.
Muscular strength and range of joint movement may decrease.
Vision and hearing challenges may be more prevalent in older workers.
OSHA has begun to analyze the potential hazards associated with these employees and will likely propose guidance.

MIDNIGHT REGULATIONS AND INTERPRETATIONS

As with any outgoing administration, there is always the potential for “midnight regulations,” often implemented through rulemaking in the waning days of an Administration, particularly after an election. Though President Obama will not leave office until January 20, 2017, employers should prepare for last minute regulations or potential “executive orders” that may have lasting effects on employers. For example, under the Clinton administration, OSHA issued an ergonomics rule shortly after the 2000 election and Congress was forced to repeal the rule shortly after President Bush took office in January 2001. The likelihood of midnight regulation under President Obama depends heavily on which party wins the presidency in November 2016. To avoid potential political fallout for a new administration, OSHA will likely implement any new regulations as early as possible in 2016.

Midnight regulations are not the only potential consequence of an outgoing administration. New last minute interpretations of existing regulations and guidance could also have a significant impact on employers. While the Eighth Circuit’s ruling in Loren Cook Company, discussed above, may lessen the likelihood of drastic reinterpretations of rules, employers should still be on the lookout for changes in interpretation and implementation that may affect how companies do business.

CONCLUSION

The first seven years of the current Administration have been very challenging for employers under OSHA and other employment laws. 2016 may be the most challenging as the current Administration wants to project its agenda in the waning days of its authority. The President has said that in his last year he intends to “leave it all on the field” as to his agendas which means that employers must continue to be vigilant, keep informed and respond properly.

Source: Seyfarth, Shaw, LLC

http://www.environmentalsafetyupdate.com

 

 

“A Look At OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program”

OSHA has finite resources, and it would take decades for the agency to visit every employer in the country to ensure workers are being protected.

OSHA officials often have said that most employers are doing their best to keep workers safe. Yet employers who actively ignore safety regulations and put employees in danger are out there, and OSHA is charged with holding such “bad actors” accountable.

In an effort to better target its resources at non-compliant employers, OSHA chooses to focus on the most severe violators. To guide this focus, OSHA implemented the Severe Violator Enforcement Program.

Launched on June 18, 2010, SVEP is intended to target the worst of the worst violators. Employers in the program are placed on a public list identifying them as a severe violator, and they are subject to follow-up inspections.

Although OSHA said in a January 2013 self-review that the program was off to a “strong start,” some stakeholders have claimed that SVEP unfairly enrolls employers, or leaves out other employers who egregiously violate OSHA rules.

(Safety+Health contacted OSHA numerous times requesting a response to concerns raised by stakeholders and questions from S+H. At press time, the agency had been unable to arrange a response.)

Program overview

Employers must meet at least one of the following criteria to be placed into the Severe Violator Enforcement Program:

  • Any inspection in which an employer is cited with a willful, repeat or failure-to-abate for a serious violation related to an employee’s death or the hospitalizations of three or more employees
  • Two or more willful, repeat, or failure-to-abates based on “high-gravity” serious violations related to a variety of high-emphasis hazards, such as falls, amputations or trenching
  • Three or more willful, repeat, failure-to-abates based on high-gravity serious violations related to the potential release of a hazardous chemical, as defined in the Process Safety Management Standard
  • All egregious – or per-instance citation – actions

Read the SVEP directive.

Background

OSHA launched the Enhanced Enforcement Program under the President George W. Bush administration. Many stakeholders – as well as the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General – criticized EEP for not fully being able to identify and address severe violators. Among the criticisms: too many employers were enrolled in the program and OSHA lacked follow-up inspections.

SVEP was intended to change that. The program has more stringent requirements than EEP, and OSHA has been able to conduct most of its follow-up inspections under SVEP, according to the agency’s 2013 white paper on the program.

“The program has succeeded in guiding OSHA enforcement toward recalcitrant employers 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,” the agency said.

“The program has succeeded in guiding OSHA enforcement toward recalcitrant employers 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,” the agency said.

‘Unproven allegations’?

OSHA’s most recent SVEP case log – published Oct. 1 – lists 434 employers in the program. The log provides employers’ names and addresses, as well as dates of when the case was opened and citations were issued. Also included for each employer is an SVEP log number, running chronologically for every new employer.

However, 152 of the log numbers are missing. This suggests that as many as 152 employers – or nearly one-quarter of the total number of SVEP employers – entered into the program but did not remain. Because no employer has formally been removed from the program, according to various reports, these 152 employers could have gone through a process known as “lining out.”

Employers are formally removed from the program only when they meet certain criteria of good behavior. (See “SVEP removal”) Lining out occurs when the SVEP-qualifying citations originally issued to an employer are later withdrawn through settlements or overturned through a court ruling. OSHA does not consider lining out the same as being formally removed from the program, and, as the agency describes in its white paper, lining out indicates the employer never should have qualified for SVEP in the first place.

“The issue is employers are qualified into the SVEP at the time citations are issued. The citations are nothing more than allegations, unproven allegations,” said Eric Conn, a founding partner of the Washington-based law firm Conn Maciel Carey.

For Conn, this is an inherent problem with SVEP: Because the SVEP list is public and OSHA issues press releases announcing some employers being entered into the program, employers may be labeled as severe violators before they have had an opportunity to contest or settle the citations.

Midsouth Steel has experienced this. In November 2011, OSHA issued a press release announcing three willful citations for fall hazards against the Atlanta-based roofing contractor. The press release also said Midsouth Steel was placed into SVEP.

In early 2012, the company brought George Henry on board as its safety director and tasked him with ensuring total compliance with OSHA regulations. As part of a settlement agreement with OSHA, the original citations were reduced and Midsouth Steel no longer qualified to be in SVEP. As a result, the company lined out.

Although the ramifications of the original violations and being temporarily placed into SVEP are minimal for Midsouth Steel today, Henry is concerned about OSHA announcing such allegations. As of press time, the press release detailing the original violations against Midsouth Steel and its placement in SVEP was still on OSHA’s website.

“When you’re on that list, it opens you and the general contractor’s project up to more scrutiny than normal,” Henry said. “Anytime you indict somebody and then declare them guilty, and then change the outcome of that and do not make that public, that’s not a good thing.”

Conn alleges that enrolling employers into SVEP before their case is fully adjudicated violates the law and the employer’s right to due process, as guaranteed under the Constitution. The process to contest OSHA citations – which is an employer’s right – may take years.

Further complicating matters is the three-year time period employers must remain in SVEP if they do not line out. The time period does not begin until the case is officially disposed, so if an employer chooses to fight the SVEP-qualifying citations and loses, it must spend three years in SVEP plus the amount of time it took for the case to go through the judicial process.

According to OSHA’s white paper, 44 percent of SVEP cases were contested. The national contest rate – which includes other-than-serious violations – was 8 percent in 2010 and 2011.

Too narrow?

According to Celeste Monforton, the percentage of contested SVEP cases is not unexpected. The stakes are high for employers that qualify for the program, giving them more incentive to contest the violations, said Monforton, who is a professional lecturer at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

Unlike Conn, however, Monforton believes the program should be broadened. The number of employers enrolled in SVEP is relatively small considering the number of employers in the country, and the criteria for entering the program are almost overly stringent, she said.

For example, an employer needs three willful or repeat violations of the Process Safety Management Standard to qualify for SVEP – a criterion Monforton claims is too narrow given recent industrial disasters.

“One violation could have a catastrophic result,” she said.

Likewise, she has concerns about how employers can line out of the program. When violations are reduced, either through settlement or the courts, the employer might leave SVEP with no public record being kept.

Comparing it to a bank robber convicted of robbing several banks but acquitted of robbing one, Monforton said the idea behind SVEP is defeated when an employer is able to be removed from the program after one violation out of several is reclassified.

Regarding OSHA announcing in press releases that certain employers have been designated as severe violators, Monforton said the agency has some latitude.

“The agency has the authority to set up criteria on how it wants to use its resources,” she said. “There are always going to be employers who object to any label. But OSHA is just doing its job.”

Improvements and SVEP’s future

Both Conn and Monforton say OSHA could improve how it does its job by making some changes to ensure SVEP targets truly severe violators.

Conn suggested that OSHA place an employer in SVEP only after a final order is given. This would prevent employers being placed into the program and then lining out.

“Just wait until you’ve actually proven that employer is a bad actor,” he said. Additionally, he recommends that OSHA “start the clock” on the three-year time period to exit the program whenever the employer enters SVEP, not simply when the case is adjudicated.

Conn objected to OSHA keeping an employer in SVEP based on any serious – not necessarily a willful or repeat – violation found in subsequent inspections, noting that it takes a willful or repeat violation to qualify into the program. This makes the threshold for keeping employers in the program too low, he said.

Both Conn and Monforton recommend that OSHA re-examine the high-hazard activities that can place employers into the program. Conn advocated removing grain handling, as OSHA’s recent, active targeting in the industry has led to improved outcomes, including fewer deaths. However, Monforton stressed the need to add hazards, specifically asbestos. Noting that OSHA has an asbestos standard on the books, and the fiber has been a known hazard for decades, she said any violation of those rules should place employers in SVEP.

Monforton said more transparency for the program would be beneficial, including OSHA’s own assessment of the program and regular updates on the number of follow-ups conducted and removals.

But no matter what changes may be made to the program, or if it is replaced during another presidential administration, OSHA will always need a mechanism to focus its enforcement on bad actors.

“OSHA is a small-budget agency, and they’re stretched pretty thin,” Conn said. “Some sort of program that is thoughtfully conceived and consistent with the constitution and the laws of the land is a good idea.”

SVEP removal

Employers placed into the Severe Violator Enforcement Program do not remain there forever. In August 2012, OSHA issued a memorandum providing guidance to inspectors on how to remove employers from the program. First, employers must remain in SVEP for three years after the final disposition of their case. This could include a settlement agreement or court of appeals decision upholding some of the original citations.

To be removed from the program, employers must:

  • Abate all SVEP-related hazards
  • Pay all final penalties
  • Abide by and complete settlement provisions
  • Avoid receiving any additional serious citations related to the hazards that put them into SVEP

Read the guidance memo.

Source: Safety & Health Magazine of the National Safety Council

 

 

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