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

Employee Rights Employment Equality Job Business Commuter ConcepSeyfarth Synopsis: In a victory for employers, a Texas federal court has refused to dismiss a lawsuit challenging an OSHA interpretation under which non-employee union representatives were permitted 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 (or other) 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.

On February 3, 2017, a Texas federal judge put a serious dent in OSHA’s continued reliance on the interpretation in a ruling signaling victory to a rising chorus of objections from the business community.  The ruling came in case in which the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) challenged the validity of the interpretation on the following two bases: (1) the letter constitutes a rule subject to notice and comment rulemaking requirements; and (2) the interpretation exceeds OSHA’s authority.

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. 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.

The Upshot for Employers

While the court’s ruling does not conclude the litigation, it sends a very clear message about how the dispute will likely end in the event OSHA continues to defend its position regarding the letter. Moreover, with a new administration committed to reducing agency overreach and armed with the ability to simply withdraw the letter, it appears the continued viability of the interpretation is very much in doubt.

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.