By Benjamin D. Briggs, Brent I. ClarkJames L. Curtis, Patrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

iStock_000042612884_MediumSeyfarth Synopsis: In an interesting outcome, an OSHRC Administrative Law Judge recently vacated a citation to an alleged “controlling employer” based on 5th Circuit precedent – despite being contrary with OSHA policy and other OSHRC precedent.

A recent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (Commission) Administrative Law Judge, Brian A. Duncan’s decision, in Hensel Phelps Construction Co., Docket No. 15-1638 (April 28, 2017), considered whether Respondent, as the general contractor for the project, can be held liable for the violation as a “controlling employer.”  Additionally, the parties argued and stipulated that under 5th Circuit case law, that OSHA’s “controlling employer” policy has been invalidated and is unenforceable.

The Commission has held that “an employer who either creates or controls the cited hazard has a duty under § 5(a)(2) of the Act, 29 U.S.C. § 666(a)(2), to protect not only its own employees, but those of other employers ‘engaged in the common undertaking’.” McDevitt Street Bovis, Docket No. 97-1918 (Sept. 28, 2000).  “An employer may be held responsible for the violations of other employers ‘where it could reasonably be expected to prevent or detect and abate the violations due to its supervisory authority and control over the worksite.”’ Summit Contractors, Inc., Docket No. 05-0839 (Aug. 19, 2010).

In the facts in this case, according to the ALJ, the Respondent had overall construction management authority on the project.  Pursuant to its contract with the City of Austin, and as the jobsite general contractor, Respondent also had authority through its officials and agents to stop construction work performed by subcontractors when hazardous conditions were found, and to prevent them from continuing work due to safety concerns.  Respondent’s onsite safety managers had previously exercised control over jobsite safety by stopping subcontractor work, and by removing subcontractor employees from the jobsite.  In fact, “Respondent’s Area Superintendent … and … Project Superintendent … were actually present when CVI employees were performing work in the unprotected area of the excavation.”

However, this violation occurred at a jobsite in Austin, Texas, which was under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.  In 1981, the Fifth Circuit, according to the ALJ, ruled that the OSH Act, its legislative history, and implemented regulations, serve to protect “an employer’s own employees from workplace hazards.”  ALJ’s emphasis.  Melerine v. Avondale Shipyards, Inc., 659 F.2d 706 (5th Cir. 1981).  In this case, the ALJ clarified that that “where it is highly probable that a Commission decision would be appealed to a particular circuit, the Commission has generally applied the precedent of that circuit in deciding the case – even though it may differ from the Commission’s precedent.” Kerns Bros. Tree Service, Docket No. 96-1719 (Mar. 16, 2000).

Therefore, the ALJ ruled that “applying 5th Circuit precedent, Respondent cannot be liable for a violation of the Act based solely upon a subcontractor’s employees’ exposure to the condition.”  The citation was vacated.

For employers this outcome raises a clear example of where, if issued an OSHA citation, such as under OSHA’s multi-employer citation policy, it is important to review the citation from the big picture, including the law, regulations, and all case law precedent that might impact the citation on the particular employer.  The jurisdiction in which the case arises matters.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Team.

By Andrew H. Perellis, Kay R. Bonza, and Craig B. Simonsen

iStock_000009254156LargeSeyfarth Synopsis: The U.S. Attorney General has directed the Department of Justice to no longer allow payments to third parties as part of resolving federal cases.  For environmental cases, this prohibition could significantly limit, if not ban, the use of SEPs.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo last week to all Department of Justice staff and 94 U.S. Attorney’s Offices, prohibiting payments to nongovernmental entities that are not a party to the litigation as part of a negotiated settlement.  Several environmental groups have interpreted this memo to altogether ban supplemental environmental projects (SEPs) in matters where DOJ is involved.

We previously blogged about EPA’s updated policy documents involving SEPs.  In the environmental context, SEPs are used to allow an alleged violator to voluntarily undertake an environmentally beneficial project related to the violation, in exchange for mitigation of the penalty to be paid.  EPA has traditionally viewed SEPs as furthering “EPA’s goal of protecting and enhancing public health and the environment.”  For example, one company paid for soil restoration on federal land as part of its compensation for air pollution violations at some of its power plants in North Carolina.  Corporate defendants have been agreeable to SEPs as they promote positive public relations.

Not every environmental settlement requires the involvement of DOJ, so for these matters, at least for the moment, SEPs remain available in resolving an alleged violation.  But for matters that require referral to DOJ for resolution, it is a different outcome.  The Attorney General’s memo prohibits DOJ attorneys from entering into “any agreement on behalf of the United States in settlement of federal claims or charges…that directs or provides for a payment or loan to any non-governmental person or entity that is not a party to the dispute.”  By doing this, Sessions is seeking to curb settlement funds from being used to benefit third-party special interest groups or political friends of those in power.

The Sessions’ memo includes two exceptions that may allow SEPs to be utilized in narrow circumstances – when structured so that a governmental entity, instead of a non-governmental organization, receives the SEP benefit, and when the benefit “directly remedies the harm.”  It remains to be seen how DOJ will apply these exceptions as the Sessions’ memo does not elaborate as what constitutes a “governmental entity” or the nexus needed to “directly remedy the harm.”  What is clear is that corporate defendants will see a reduction in the use of SEPs as part of environmental settlement agreements that are negotiated by the DOJ.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth Environmental Compliance, Enforcement & Permitting Team.

By Jeryl L. Olson, Patrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: Last week Administrator Scott Pruitt signed a final rule to further delay the effective date of EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP) Amendments an additional 20 months to allow the agency to conduct a reconsideration proceeding.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new rules to strengthen the Clean Air Act’s Risk Management Program (RMP), 40 C.F.R. Part 68, were first adopted on January 13, 2017 (82 Fed. Reg. 4594), after the proposed regulations were published for notice and comment on March 14, 2016 (81 Fed. Reg. 13638).

However, Administrator Pruitt has now signed a rule changing the effective date of the amendments to February 19, 2019 (82 FR 27133).

For an analysis on the proposed rules see our previous blog on U.S. EPA To Require Stronger Chemical Safety Regulation.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth Environmental Compliance, Enforcement & Permitting Team.

By James L. Curtis, Brent I. Clark, and Craig B. Simonsen

iStock_000009254156LargeSeyfarth Synopsis: OSHA is sponsoring a “Safe + Sound Week,” another example of a more cooperative approach to worker safety and health issues.

We had blogged previously on OSHA’s launch of the “Safe and Sound Campaign” webpage, calling on employers to review their safety and health programs to protect workers, and reduce workplace injuries and deaths, and its “Recommended Practices for Safety and Health Programs” webpage.

Now OSHA, along with the National Safety Council, American Industrial Hygiene Association, American Society of Safety Engineers, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, is sponsoring the first “inaugural” Safe + Sound Week.  It has designated June 12-18, 2017, for the event.

In announcing the event, the U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta said that “our nation has made great strides in raising awareness about the importance of workplace safety, yet more than four million workers suffer serious job-related injuries or illnesses annually. We can do better.”

According to the announcement, participating in this event will “help organizations get their safety and health program started” or energize an existing one.

OSHA notes that “effective programs have three core elements”:

  • Management leadership that commits to establishing, maintaining and continually improving the program.
  • Workers who help identify solutions for improvements.
  • A systematic “find and fix” approach that calls upon employers and workers alike to examine their workplaces – proactively and routinely – to identify and address hazards before an injury or illness occurs.

More information on how to participate is provided on OSHA’s webpage.

This event is another example of a more cooperative approach to worker safety and health issues. As we noted previously, this is not the tone that we have seen from OSHA in the last several years.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Team.

By James L. Curtis

iStock_000004162096LargeSeyfarth Synopsis: OSHA has announced that it will be proposing a delay to the July 1, 2017 deadline for certain employers to electronically file injury and illness data.

Under OSHA’s revised recordkeeping rules certain employers are required to electronically file injury and illness data with OSHA.  As we noted previously in our blog, the rule became effective in January, 2017 and required employers to electronically file the information by July 1, 2017.  However, for months the regulated community has been asking how it is expected to accomplish this electronic filing when OSHA has failed to set up a website capable of accepting the submissions.

OSHA has now posted a notice on its website acknowledging that “OSHA is not accepting electronic submission of injury and illness logs at this time and intends to propose extending the July 1, 2017 date by which certain employers are required to submit the information from their completed 2016 form 300A electronically.”

It is unclear how long of a delay OSHA will seek and whether other modifications will be made that would impact the new anti-retaliation provisions.  We will keep readers posted.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the author, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Team.

By Mark A. Lies, IIAdam R. Young, and Craig B. Simonsen

Woman holding hemp flowersSeyfarth Synopsis:  NIOSH has released a study on the safety and health hazards posed by marijuana growing farms.  Of concern for employers are the risks for musculoskeletal disorders, as well as dermal contact exposure to both THC and Botrytis cinerea, a plant pathogen. 

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has recently published the results of a potential hazards evaluation associated with the harvesting and processing of cannabis at a Washington state outdoor organic farm.  Health Hazard Evaluation Report, No. 2015-0111-3271 (April 2017).

The Report concludes that “if hand trimming tasks are performed for longer periods than we observed, the repetitive hand motions create a risk for hand and wrist musculoskeletal disorders.  Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component in cannabis, was detected on all surface wipe samples.  Botrytis cinerea, a plant pathogen that can cause allergic reactions in exposed individuals, was the predominant fungal species identified.”

NIOSH has provided the following methods for mitigating and managing the hazards:

  • Change hook line hanging heights to correspond with typical stem length and employee working technique.
  • Provide frequent breaks for employees when they are trimming cannabis by hand.
  • Develop a plan to rotate employees among jobs that use different muscle groups.
  • Train employees on tool cleaning, lubrication, sharpening, and maintenance.
  • Develop a cleaning schedule to remove tetrahydrocannabinol from work and tool surfaces.
  • Train employees to wear non-latex gloves when handling cannabis, cannabis products, or equipment that contacts cannabis.
  • Train employees to wash their skin with soap and water after removing gloves.

Employers in this industry can use these NIOSH recommendations to develop their own employee safety and training programs or to update their existing programs, as appropriate.  At a minimum, employers who have a written program in place may wish to make sure that they have covered all of the topics highlighted in these NIOSH this Report. Coordinating employer written materials with the NIOSH recommendations may improve employee safety and reduce the likelihood of workplace incidents.  Moreover, compliance with the NIOSH recommendations also may reduce the employer’s liability for an OSHA citation, should OSHA conduct an onsite inspection and find safety hazards unaddressed.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Team or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.

By James L. Curtis, Patrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

iStock_000009254156LargeSeyfarth Synopsis: OSHA has rescinded its midnight rule, adopted by the outgoing Administration in December 2016 which attempted to end run the federal court’s decision in Volks that limits the statute of limitations on injury recordkeeping violations to six months.

Prior to 2012, OSHA’s longstanding position was that an employer’s duty to record an injury or illness continues for the full five-year record-retention period.  However, in 2012, the D.C. Circuit issued a decision, in AKM LLC v. Secretary of Labor, 675 F.3d 752 (DC Cir. 2012), rejecting OSHA’s position.

The AKM or “Volks” decision found that the standard six month statute limitations applies to an employer’s duty to record work related injuries and illnesses on the OSHA 300 log. The Volks decision effectively ended OSHA practice of issuing citations for alleged recordkeeping errors going back five years.  This decision did not sit well with OSHA.  In December, 2016 OSHA announced a new final rule that OSHA claimed “clarifies” an employer’s “continuing” obligation to make and maintain an accurate record of each recordable injury and illness for a full five years.

As we previously blogged, OSHA’s rule was a clear attempt to avoid the D.C. Circuit‘s ruling.  In response, Congress passed a Resolution to block OSHA’s rule, stating that “such rule shall have no force or effect.”  Agreeing with Congress, the White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy announcing that it “strongly supports” passage of the bill.

The December midnight rule has now been rescinded by OSHA, effectively acknowledging that the six month statute of limitations applies, not the five year statute of limitations.  82 Fed. Reg. 20548 (May 3, 2017).

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Team.

By James L. Curtis, Benjamin D. Briggs, and Craig B. Simonsen

Employee Rights Employment Equality Job Business Commuter ConcepSeyfarth Synopsis: In a victory for employers, OSHA has rescinded its policy allowing union representatives to participate in OSHA inspections of non-union employers.

We blogged previously about OSHA’s 2013 standard interpretation guidance letter allowing workers in non-union workplaces to designate a union representative to act as a “walk-around representative” during OSHA compliance inspections.  At the time, we cautioned that an undesirable consequence of the interpretation was that it allowed outsiders with interests potentially contrary to the employer’s to influence the compliance inspection in an effort to generate union support amongst employees.  Since its issuance, OSHA has used the letter to force union participation in inspections of non-union workplaces over employer objections.

In September, 2016 the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) sued in Federal Court to challenge OSHA’s “illegal administrative expansion” of the “walk-around” right. The NFIB complaint focused on the fact that, for over four decades, OSHA construed the Act to “afford employees a limited right to accompany an OSHA compliance safety and health officer during a workplace inspection.” See 29 C.F.R. § 1903.8.

OSHA responded to the suit by filing a motion to dismiss in which it raised a number of threshold arguments before attacking the substance of NFIB’s claims. On February 3, 2017, the federal court put a serious dent in OSHA’s continued reliance on the interpretation in a ruling signaling victory to the rising chorus of objections from the business community. The court flatly rejected OSHA’s threshold arguments and then sided with NFIB’s argument that the letter was a legislative rule subject to notice and comment rulemaking, not “interpretive guidance” as OSHA contended.  In reaching this conclusion, the court observed that the letter “flatly contradicts a prior legislative rule as to whether the employee representative must himself be an employee,” and, in turn, should have gone through the formal rulemaking process.

On April 25, 2017, OSHA withdrew this policy via a Rescission Memo.  It states that “given the express guidance in the statute and the applicable regulation, OSHA is withdrawing the February 21, 2013 letter to Mr. Sallman as unnecessary.  Likewise, the guidance in this memorandum supersedes OSHA Instruction CPL 02-00-160, Field Operations Manual (FOM) (8/2/2016), Chapter 3, Section VII.A, which will be revised accordingly.”

Following OSHA’s rescission, NFIB voluntarily dismissed its lawsuit.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Team.

By James L. Curtis, Patrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

iStock_000009254156LargeSeyfarth Synopsis: In a move that may be employer-friendly, President Trump has re-nominated Heather MacDougall to the OSHRC. MacDougall represents a Republican vote on cases appealed before the Commission.

Heather L. MacDougall has recently been re-nominated by President Trump to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC).  McDougall was originally nominated to the OSHRC in 2014 by then-President Obama and confirmed unanimously by the Senate.  MacDougall had then been designated as acting Chair of the OSHRC. Her previous term was set to expire in January 2017.

OSHRC is an independent federal agency set up to adjudicate disputes over OSHA citations or penalties, including hearing appeals from employers.  Although MacDougall and Commissioner Cynthia L. Attwood are currently its only members, they have a quorum and may issue decisions.  The tird seat on the OSHRC remains open.

According to the Whitehouse news release MacDougall came to the OSHRC with twenty years of experience representing employers throughout the United States in matters involving labor, employment, and occupational safety and health law, most recently with Akerman LLP in West Palm Beach, Florida.  In addition, she had served as Chief Counsel to OSHRC Chairman W. Scott Railton.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Team.

By Brent I. Clark, Adam R. Young, and Craig B. Simonsen

Photo from CSB YouTube page video capture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCEErm18T2k
Photo from CSB YouTube page video capture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCEErm18T2k

Seyfarth Synopsis: The CSB found deficiencies in the facility’s design and labeling of the chemical loading stations, and failure to follow the company’s written chemical unloading procedures.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board recently released preliminary findings from its ongoing investigation of the toxic chemical release that occurred at a processing plant in Atchison, Kansas.  The investigation has identified several deficiencies in the design and labeling of the loading stations, and failure to follow the company’s written chemical unloading procedures.

In the Atchison case, a chemical tanker truck arrived at the facility to deliver sulfuric acid.  A facility operator escorted the driver to a locked loading area.  The operator unlocked the gate to the fill lines and also unlocked the sulfuric acid fill line.  The Board findings indicate that the facility operator likely did not notice that the sodium hypochlorite fill line was also already unlocked before returning to his work station.  The driver accordingly connected the sulfuric acid discharge hose from the truck into the sodium hypochlorite fill line.  The line used to transfer sulfuric acid looked similar to the sodium hypochlorite line, and the two lines were located in close proximity.

As a result of the incorrect connection, allegedly thousands of gallons of sulfuric acid from the tanker truck entered the facility’s sodium hypochlorite tank.  The resulting mixture created a dense cloud of poisonous gas, which traveled northeast of the facility until the wind shifted the cloud northwest towards a more densely populated area of town.  The Board’s investigation preliminary findings have concluded that “emergency shutdown mechanisms were not in place or were not actuated from either a remote location at the facility or in the truck.”

The Board indicated that a number of design deficiencies increased the likelihood of an incorrect connection.  These included “the close proximity of the fill lines, and unclear and poorly placed chemical labels.”  In addition, neither the facility operator of the tanker truck driver followed internal procedures for unloading operations.

This incident illustrates the necessity of maintaining both safety procedures, and regular training on those safety procedures.  Process safety management reviews and periodic reviews of operating procedures can also assist employers to find process areas that have potential weaknesses or issues that can be corrected, before incidents occur.

Human factors such as the chance of operator confusion appears to have played a role in this incident. Employer’s should continue to evaluate human factors as part of their hazard assessments.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Team.