Occupational Safety and Health

OSHA Launches New "Winter Storms" Web Page

January 2, 2012

By Patrick V. Melfi

Just in time for the Winter Solstice, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration ("OSHA") issued a press release on December 21, 2011, advising that the agency launched a web page devoted to hazards workers may face during winter storm response and recovery operations.

OSHA's new web page contains guidance on how employers and workers who are involved in cleanup and recovery operations can avoid injuries and illnesses related to snow storms and other weather conditions.  For example, OSHA offers advice on how to prepare a vehicle for the winter season, how to avoid back aches and heart attacks while shoveling snow, how to safely walk on ice, etc.  Industry-specific guidance on the new web page includes a section on utility workers' repair of downed or damaged power lines.

The web page also identifies several hazards that are associated with working in winter storms, including:  being struck by falling objects, such as icicles, tree limbs, and utility poles; driving accidents; carbon monoxide poisoning; dehydration, hypothermia, and frostbite; and falling while walking on slippery walkways.

The new web page also includes links to guidance from OSHA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency ("FEMA"), the American Red Cross, the National Weather Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Safety Council, and other agencies and organizations.

Fall Protection: Most Common OSHA Violation for 2011

December 13, 2011

Although the data for 2011 is not yet final, OSHA expects problems related to employees falling off scaffolds, roofs, ladders, and other high places to be the top violations cited in 2011.  In addition, the most frequently violated standard subsection is expected to be the rule covering residential construction (29 C.F.R. Section 1926.501(b)(13)).  Other top violations are expected to include:  hazard communication; respiratory protection; lockout/tagout; electrical, wiring methods; powered industrial trucks; electrical, general requirements; and machine guarding.

OSHA's data serves as a reminder to employers that falls are the leading cause of deaths among construction workers.  They account for approximately one-third of all construction fatalities.  Generally speaking, OSHA's fall protection standard requires that anyone working at heights of six feet or more be provided with fall protection.  OSHA does not necessarily mandate the type of fall protection that must be used in any given situation, but rather offers many methods to achieve compliance.  A combination of different fall protection measures are often appropriate.  Fall protection strategies may include some of the following measures:

  • Fall prevention methods, such as the use of guardrails, warning lines, controlled access zones, hole covers, or safety monitoring systems;
  • Fall arrest systems, including the use of safety nets or full-body harnesses;
  • Fall protection plans, which are administrative controls that rely on special training and specific work practices and protocols; and
  • Employee training, which focuses on identifying hazards and demonstrating proficiency in the use of fall protection systems.

As we head into 2012, we are reminded of the words of Dr. Carl Sagan:  "You have to know the past to understand the present."  Employers can certainly learn from this past OSHA data by reviewing the adequacy of their fall protection measures, so that they can avoid potential OSHA violations in the future.

OSHA Suits Remind New York Employers: Don't Discipline Employees For Raising Safety and Health Concerns

October 21, 2010

By Michael D. Billok

Two events in the past week should remind New York employers of their legal obligation under section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act not to discipline or terminate employees for reporting a safety hazard, or for filing a complaint with OSHA. On October 14, OSHA announced that it had obtained a consent judgment in a case brought against the John Galt Corporation and two managers, which orders them to pay a terminated employee $55,000 in back wages and to expunge all disciplinary records from the employee's personnel file related to his reporting of health and safety issues at the former Deutsche Bank Building in New York City. Earlier this week, OSHA filed suit against Promesa Systems Inc., a New York City nonprofit organization providing care to individuals with developmental disabilities, for allegedly firing an employee for voicing workplace safety and health concerns and for filing a complaint with OSHA. (The suit also names the organization's wholly owned subsidiary, East Harlem Council for Community Improvement Inc., as well as three managers.) The complaint alleges that a few days after the employee advised the defendants that she would consult OSHA regarding a work assignment, the defendants suspended her, and ultimately fired her under the pretext of poor performance. OSHA is seeking reinstatement, backpay with interest, and compensatory damages.

OSHA to Apply General Duty Clause to Distracted Driving

October 4, 2010

By Michael D. Billok

Over the past two years, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) has sought to expand significantly the reach of the General Duty Clause by issuing citations to employers for workplace violence and ergonomics issues. This expansion will soon reach another area: distracted driving. The agency plans to issue General Duty Clause citations to companies whose employees text while driving. This promise comes directly from the Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels: "When OSHA receives a credible complaint that an employer requires texting while driving or who organizes work so that texting is a practical necessity, we will investigate and where necessary issue citations and penalties to end this practice." If you have employees who respond to hundreds of e-mails a day, with rapid response times required, and who frequently or occasionally travel during work time as part of their duties, you may receive a visit or an inquiry from OSHA. The impact on employers could be significant. According to a recent Pew Research Poll, 27% percent of all adults admit to texting while driving. Most troubling is the assertion that the agency will cite employers that "create incentives that encourage or condone" texting while driving. Employers that do not "condone" the practice may still receive citations if the agency concludes that an employer that expects fast responses to calls or e-mails thereby "encourages" employees who are driving to respond to texts or e-mails, instead of using a hands-free device or pulling off the road.

Employers can most effectively protect themselves from this enforcement effort by implementing and enforcing strong policies against the practice of texting while driving. Employees should be required to sign a policy explicitly stating they agree not to text while driving during work time, either as part of an employee handbook or when they receive any company-issued cell phone or texting device. Further, any employees found to be texting while driving during work time should be disciplined, up to and including termination.

 

OSHA Issues High Penalty Failure-To-Abate Citations

August 11, 2010

By Michael D. Billok

An employer that has entered into a settlement agreement with OSHA, or that has been found in violation of OSHA regulations or the general duty clause--either by order of an Administrative Law Judge or as a consequence of accepting a citation--should adhere to all provisions of any agreement, and abate all cited conditions. An OSHA Area Office may assess a failure to abate penalty of up to $7,000 per citation item per day for each day the condition is not abated. Normally, the maximum time period is 30 days, for a maximum penalty per citation item of $210,000, but that time period may be increased in exceptional circumstances.

Last week, OSHA issued citations of over $200,000 each to two New York businesses. The first, totaling $210,000, was issued to Broadway Corp., doing business as Broadway Concrete, for failing to abide by a settlement agreement entered into after first receiving a citation for lack of fall protection back in 2008. OSHA conducted a follow-on inspection in January of this year, and in the new citation alleges that Broadway Concrete performed work at eight sites in New York City without adequate fall protection, in violation of the settlement agreement. The second citation issued last week, totaling $247,000, was issued to U.F.S. Industries, doing business as Sally Sherman Foods, for failing to abate conditions previously cited--lack of fall protection, machine guarding, and inadequate lockout/tagout--following a prior inspection at its Mount Vernon facility.

New York Area Offices have recently issued several other high-penalty failure-to-abate citations, suggesting that this may signal a new direction in enforcement in Region 2 (which includes New York and New Jersey):
 

  • On July 20, OSHA issued citations totaling $112,000 in penalties to a Home Depot in West Nyack, chiefly for failure to abate items regarding potential employee exposure to methylene chloride.
  • On June 2, OSHA issued citations totaling $346,500 in penalties to CEC Elevator Cab Corp in the Bronx, chiefly for failure to abate items regarding various programs and training.
  • On April 28, OSHA issued citations totaling $107,000 to the Service Manufacturing Group in Buffalo, chiefly for failure to abate items regarding cranes, slings, fire extinguishers, and other issues, at its sheet metal fabrication plant.

Last, but certainly not least, last week OSHA issued the third largest citation in history, $16.6 million to several contractors and subcontractors for alleged violations associated with the February 7, 2010 explosion at the Kleen Energy power plant in Middletown, CT. (The two largest OSHA citations were issued to BP in association with a 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery, and alleged failures to abate conditions following the expiration of a settlement agreement.) 

UPDATE:  SInce this post was first published on August 11, another New York Area Office just issued a six-figure failure-to-abate citation, this time a $114,750 citation to Pierce Industries, a Rochester machine shop, for failing to correct a variety of hazards following an initial citation issued in December 2009.

NEW OSHA TASK FORCE WILL CONSIDER UPDATING PERMISSIBLE EXPOSURE LIMITS

July 6, 2010

By Patrick V. Melfi

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) may be considering an update of its list of permissible exposure limits (PELs) for many regulated chemicals and recognized air contaminants. According to BNA’s Daily Labor Report, at the May 26, 2010 American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo in Denver, OSHA Administrator David Michaels told the group that the Agency is in the process of assembling a task force to examine the possibility of updating current PELs. Most of the PELs have remain unchanged since first being set by OSHA in 1971, and revising the limits may be easier said than done. Because of that difficulty, Administrator Michaels urged that “all of us in the occupational safety and health community have to engage in support of this process because it is a very difficult one.”

This is not the Agency’s first attempt at implementing PEL revisions, and a prior attempt was not successful. By way of background, an employer is required under the “General Duty Clause” of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 to “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” The Act also requires employers to “comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated” by OSHA. Pursuant to this authority, OSHA promulgated numerous PELs for air contaminants in 1971; these standards are organized into three industries: general industry, shipyard employment, and the construction industry.
 

In 1989, OSHA implemented more than 400 revised and updated PELs because of its concern that the 1971 limits were outdated and based on obsolete science. In response, however, representatives from various industries and associations (including the AFL-CIO) challenged the updated PELs in court, claiming that OSHA had not followed the proper procedures for making the revisions and that there was not enough scientific evidence or support to justify the updates. Interestingly, the arguments by the various groups that joined together in the lawsuit varied dramatically, from claims that updated PELs were too low to arguments that they were too high. After years of litigation, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Atlanta, refused to enforce any of the updated PELs and concluded that “OSHA has lumped together substances and affected industries and provided such inadequate explanation that it is virtually impossible for a reviewing court to determine if sufficient evidence supports the agency’s conclusion.”

Now, it appears the Agency has again set its sights on revising and updating PELs – almost forty years after the standards were first set and more than twenty years after its last failed attempt. It remains to be seen precisely what approach OSHA will take or what impact such changes may have on employers. However, as this agency initiative develops, employers and associations should monitor it and take an active role if OSHA solicits their input.

 

New OSHA Initiative Targets Underreporting of Workplace Injuries

February 22, 2010

By Patrick V. Melfi

The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (“OSHA”) recently launched an enforcement initiative focused on identifying employers who underreport workplace injuries and illnesses. This initiative—which OSHA has classified as a National Emphasis Program (“NEP”)—was prompted by recent government reports which found that a high percentage of workplace injuries and illnesses are not being reported by employers. Accordingly, employers should be mindful of the NEP, and that OSHA has made clear that its investigators will be paying particularly close attention to workplace policies and practices which have the effect of discouraging employees from reporting their job-related injuries and illnesses.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (the “Act”) requires employers to maintain accurate records of, and make periodic reports on, work-related deaths, injuries and illnesses. 29 U.S.C. §657(c). OSHA has also promulgated detailed regulations implementing these requirements. See 29 C.F.R. §§1904 et seq. The principal record employers use for this purpose is OSHA's Form 300 (“Log of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses”). For each work-related injury and illness that requires medical treatment beyond first aid, employers must use the Form 300 to record certain information, including a brief description of the injury or illness and the number of days the worker was away from work. Employers are also required to describe each work-related injury and illness on OSHA’s Form 301 (“Injuries and Illnesses Incident Report”).

Despite these requirements, however, a recent report issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) found that workplace injuries and illnesses are being significantly underreported. Moreover, the GAO report found that certain employer policies and practices, which discourage workers (sometimes unintentionally) from reporting their injuries and illnesses, are a “primary factor” causing this trend. According to the GAO, its investigation revealed that “workers may not report a work-related injury or illness because they fear job loss or other disciplinary action, or fear jeopardizing rewards based on having low injury and illness rates.”

The GAO report followed a separate—and more scathing—report on the same topic published by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and Labor. This report, like the GAO report, claimed that work-related injuries and illnesses are being “chronically and even grossly underreported” by employers. Further, the report likewise found that employer “disincentives” have played a major role in this underreporting, and also emphasized that these practices can have a catastrophic impact on worker safety.

For example, the House report repeatedly cited the 2005 British Petroleum (“BP”) refinery fire in Texas, which killed 15 workers and injured at least 170 others, as an example of the harms presented by underreporting:

Programs that have the result of discouraging workers from reporting incidents that may be predictive of future or more serious accidents can have a detrimental effect on worker safety. The Chemical Safety Board, in its report on the 2005 BP Texas City explosion that killed 15 workers, noted that one thing missing at BP was a ‘reporting culture where personnel are willing to inform managers about errors, incidents, near-misses, and other safety concerns.’ When workers were not encouraged to report, managers did not investigate incidents or take appropriate corrective action.

The 2005 BP refinery fire resulted in record OSHA fines and penalties. BP originally settled with OSHA and agreed to $21 million in penalties. More recently, BP was assessed an additional $88 million in penalties because of alleged new violations at the Texas refinery and its failure to abate earlier violations.

Both the GAO and House reports prompted OSHA to issue its NEP and to concurrently shift its focus towards employer practices and policies which may lead to the underreporting of workplace injuries and illnesses. In fact, the NEP specifically instructs OSHA investigators to ask employees the following questions during audit-related interviews:

• Have you ever been encouraged not to report an injury or illness or been encouraged to report an injury or illness as a non-work-related event or exposure?
• Are there any safety incentive programs, contests, or promotions or any disciplinary programs here? Do these — or anything else — affect your decision whether to report an injury or illness?

Significantly, the NEP makes clear that OSHA also has its sights set on safety incentive programs, which, although well-intended, may nevertheless have the effect of pressuring workers not to report their injuries. As a matter of policy, OSHA has not adopted any specific directives addressing safety incentive programs, but officials are plainly looking towards these types of initiatives with a strong measure of skepticism—particularly where the program links the incentives to the number of injuries reported or to some other similar metric. In contrast, incentive programs which are more proactive in nature—such as ones rewarding employees who attend safety training sessions or who demonstrate exemplary safety practices—are likely to face less skepticism from OSHA.

The NEP is currently limited to select industries with historically high injury rates (including animal slaughterhouses, steel and iron foundries, and nursing care facilities), but OSHA may expand the program beyond this group. With respect to the construction industry, for example, OSHA has stated that “recordkeeping in the construction industry has a long history of complexity and questions raised due to the nature of the workforce associated with mobile worksites.” Given this concern, OSHA has stated that the NEP will include several pilot inspections of construction employers in order to better understand how to approach potential underreporting issues within the industry on a broader scale.

Employers investigated by OSHA—whether through the NEP or through an independent audit—and subsequently found to have violated their record-keeping obligations may be subject to appropriate citations and monetary penalties. The corresponding financial liability can be significant, particularly where suspect record-keeping practices are pervasive, as OSHA has in the past “stacked” penalties for multiple violations. Additionally, employers should be mindful that, under Section 11(c) of the Act, workers are protected from being discriminated against on the basis of any protected activity. 29 U.S.C. §660(c). This “protected activity” expressly includes the reporting of work-related injuries and illnesses. See 29 C.F.R. §1904.36.

Accordingly, employers who actively discourage their employees from reporting workplace injuries or illnesses may run afoul of the Act. In this regard, Section 11(c) issues are clearly on OSHA’s priority list, as evidenced by recently publicized enforcement actions which entailed considerable penalties and fines. See, e.g., OSHA Regional News Release, “Illinois-based Railroads Ordered by U.S. Department of Labor to Compensate Employee Fired for Reporting Work-Related Injury” (February 11, 2010) (assessing $80,453 in penalties); OSHA Regional News Release, “U.S. Labor Department’s OSHA Finds Metro North Commuter Railroad Co. Retaliated Against Four Employees Who Reported Work Injuries” (June 18, 2009) (assessing $300,000 in punitive damages).

So, what can employers do to avoid liability for potential reporting violations and/or Section 11(c) discrimination claims? Among other things, companies should review, and, if necessary, modify, their current polices, practices, and procedures to ensure that workers are being affirmatively encouraged to report injuries and illnesses. Along the same lines, companies should also incorporate a policy statement that workers will be protected against any unlawful retaliation for making such reports. Additionally, employers should carefully consider whether safety incentive programs already in place may have the unintended consequence of discouraging workers from reporting injuries and illnesses, and, if so, modify these programs accordingly. More generally, employers should also consider conducting a safety and health audit of their operations to ensure compliance with all applicable OSHA regulations.
 

OSHA Publishes Proposed Rule to Adopt the Globally Harmonized Hazard Communication System

October 14, 2009

By Patrick V. Melfi

On September 29, 2009, Acting Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Jordan Barab announced the agency’s proposal to align OSHA’s current Hazard Communication (“HazCom”) Standard with the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (“GHS”).  The proposed rule  was published in the Federal Register on September 30, 2009 and – if implemented without change – will significantly alter the labels and material safety data sheets that currently appear and accompany hazardous chemicals in the workplace.   Significant aspects of the proposed rule are described below.

 


 

Under OSHA’s current HazCom Standard (which was originally promulgated in 1983), chemical manufacturers and importers must evaluate the chemicals they produce or import and provide hazard information to downstream employers and workers by preparing labels and safety data sheets. Employers must have a hazard communication program for exposed workers, including hazard identification, container labels, safety data sheets and employee training. The HazCom Standard remains a priority for OSHA as 2007 Bureau of Labor Statistics data revealed that more than 50,000 workers became ill in 2007 because of chemical exposure.

The GHS was developed -- after what Assistant Secretary Barab termed “decades of international negotiations” -- by a number of countries and international organizations to address inconsistencies in hazard classification and communication. The GHS is intended as a single, harmonized system for classifying chemicals and preparing labels and safety data sheets. Under the GHS, labels will identify chemical hazards through standardized format, signal words, pictograms, and hazard statements for each hazard class and category. Safety data sheets will be presented in a designated order with a specified sixteen-section format. The new standard requires workers to be trained within two (2) years of publication of the final rule to facilitate recognition and understanding of the new labels and safety data sheets.

The design/intent of OSHA’s proposal rule is to:  increase the quality and consistency of information provided to workers and employers; enhance worker comprehension; ensure the appropriate handling of chemicals; and reduce chemically-related fatalities, injuries and illnesses. OSHA speculates that the change will also make it easier for employers to train workers on how to safely handle chemicals shipped from various manufacturers and importers. Additionally, the new standard is supposed to decrease the cost of providing hazard information and facilitate international trade by eliminating the need for multiple labels and safety data sheets when shipping a product to several different countries.

OSHA expects that affected employers will incur one-time transition costs as a result of the proposed revisions, but that the ongoing annual compliance costs will be the same or lower than under the existing standard. OSHA will have a 90-day comment period on the proposed rulemaking, ending December 29, 2009. Comments should be submitted to OSHA electronically at http://www.regulations.gov/ (http://www.regulations.gov/search/Regs/home.html#home); by fax to the OSHA Docket Office at (202) 693-1648; or by mail to the OSHA Docket Office, Docket No. OSHA-H022k-2006-0062, U.S. Department of Labor, Room N-2625, 200 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, D.C., 20210. 

This blog post was prepared with the assistance of Katherine A. Ritts, Esq.