WATCH OUT FOR “REGULATION BY SHAME”

When OSHA Assistant Secretary Michaels and Jordan Barab famously admitted that OSHA was utilizing large penalties accompanied by harsh press releases to “motivate” employers to comply, I had mixed feelings.  Fear is a great motivator.  Aggressive publication of legitimate noteworthy OSHA citations has a role in the “carrot and stick” process of safety enforcement.  Moreover, I understand that the former OSHA Region IV Administrator first used the phrase, and frankly, I doubt that she misused the approach.  However, I was concerned that OSHA might issue more harsh penalties and press releases than deserved, in order to “motivate” employers. Those concerns may have been valid, and Corporate entities would do well to consider this increasingly common  “approach.”

 Almost every week we now see disingenuous press releases, which seem designed to suggest bad behavior associated with even more “routine” OSHA  violations.  These press releases can cost U.S. companies business where customers take such releases at face value.  We have seen similar use of press releases at the EEOC.  A suit may be announced by the EEOC with great fanfare, embarrassing a Company.  Months later, the case is settled for a nuisance sum indicating there was little merit, and both sides simply wanted to be done with it.  Revised press releases are seldom issued – I doubt that after we were all shocked by the EEOC’s press release about its recent $240,00,000 ADA award, we will see a release trumpeting that the Court reduced it to $1,600,000, even though we all knew that the statute required such a reduction.

 We have noticed OSHA press releases that tout serious or repeat citations accompanied by comments that “an accident could have been prevented” or similar comments (check OSHA’s newsroom).  The clear implication is that the citations were related to the accident.  However, closer examination suggests that the citations had nothing to do with the accident.

 Every OSHA violation matters, but issuing and publicizing a repeat citation for a missing toe rail or knock-out on an electric cabinet in a way that suggests that these often large-dollar violations were related to the accident is disingenuous.

 Whether “deserved” or not, employers must prepare for and hopefully avoid these damaging press releases, and more importantly, protect their workers.

 So, irritation aside, what’s the relevance to you, the employer?

 1.         OSHA is right about one-thing, . . . fear is a motivator.  Upper management needs to emphasize to front line managers that even the most minor safety violations can lead to heavy-handed OSHA press releases, which can devastate business reputation.

 2.         The big dollar penalties are not primarily coming from worker deaths.  They come from “repeats” of common workplace violations, such as missing knock-outs on electric panels, broken ground plugs, a fire extinguisher on the floor, boxes blocking an electric panel, a misaligned guard on a small grinder, etc.  These items quickly result in $70,000 repeat penalties because . . .

 

  • The Administration extended the period for repeat violations from three (3) to five (5) years.
  • The test of a “repeat” violation is “substantial similarity,” which is generously interpreted by judges, and means little more than the same “hazard” and same or similar standard.
  • Certain common violations will occur unless the employer consistently maintains focused regular inspections at all plants and keeps this concern front-and-center with plant management.  Even then, a ground plug can break off of an extension cord minutes after it was inspected, and if OSHA should be on site. . . .

 3.         Where harmful press is a concern, don’t wait until OSHA citations are issued to retain counsel.  There may be strategies that even sophisticated employers are unaware.

 4.         Ensure that not only the Safety Department, but P.R., Sales, Compliance, Counsel and top executives are aware that potentially devastating press releases can arise from a seemingly “routine” OSHA inspection.

 5.         OSHA’s general cut-off is to issue a press release where more than $40,000 in penalties are involved … a much lower threshold than for “significant cases” or for entry to the “Severe Violators Enforcement Program” or SVEP.  So be forewarned.

About mavity2012

I am a Senior Partner operating out of the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips LLP, one of the Nation’s oldest and largest management employment and labor firms. My practice is national and keeps me on the road or in one of our 28 offices about 50 percent of the time. I created and co-chair the Firm's Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group. I have almost 29 years of experience as a labor lawyer, but rely even more heavily on the experience I gained in working in my family's various businesses, and through dealing with practical client issues. Employers tell me that they seldom meet an attorney who delivers on his promise to provide practical guidance and to be a business partner. As a result, some executives probably use different terms than “practical” to describe my fellow travelers in the profession. I don't enjoy the luxury of being impractical because I spend much of my time on shop floors and construction sites dealing with safety, union and related issues which are driven by real world processes and the need to protect and get the most out of one's most important business assets ... its employees. That's one of the reasons that I view safety compliance as a way to also manage problem employees, reduce litigation and develop the type of work environment that makes unions unnecessary. Starting out dealing with union-management challenges and a stint in the NLRB have better equipped me to see the interrelationship of legal and workplace factors. I am proud also of my experience at Fisher & Phillips, where providing “practical advice” is second only to legal excellence among the Firm’s values. Our website lists me as having provided counsel for over 225 occasions of union activity, guided unionized companies, and as having managed approximately 450 OSHA fatality cases in construction and general industry, ranging from dust explosions to building collapses, in virtually every state. I have coordinated complex inspections involving multi-employer sites, corporate-wide compliance, and issues involving criminal referral. As a full labor lawyer, I oversee audits of corporate labor, HR, and safety compliance. I have responded to virtually every type of day-to-day workplace inquiry, and have handled cases before the EEOC, OFCCP, NLRB, and numerous other state and federal agencies. At F & P, all of us seek to spot issues and then rely upon attorneys in the Firm who concentrate on those areas. No tunnel vision. I teach or speak around 50 times per year to business associations, bar and professional groups, and to individual businesses. I serve on safety committees at three states’ AGC Chapters, teach at the AGC ASMTC
This entry was posted in managing legal matters, MSHA, NLRB, OSHA, settlement strategies, union organizing, willful and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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