OSHA: A review and look ahead

Unlike other agencies, such as the EPA, OSHA has not experienced the scale back in enforcement and rulemaking that was expected under the Trump administration. Most attribute this to the fact that there is still no Assistant Secretary of Labor – the longest vacancy ever for the top job at OSHA. Given the present political climate and election year activity, few expect the position to be filled during this final year of President Trump’s first term.

In addition, two vacancies on the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC) meant that it could not issue decisions since March 28, 2019, because it did not have a quorum. However, it can now resume its work because the Senate confirmed Cynthia Attwood and Amanda Wood Laihow by voice vote Jan. 9, 2020.

What’s been unexpected?

  • No reduction in enforcement emphasis programs. OSHA continues to implement the same number of national (NEP) and regional (REP) emphasis programs as under the Obama administration.
  • Number of inspections has increased. While the number of compliance officers (CSHO) is lower, the number of inspections in 2019 was 33,401, compared to 31,948 in 2016. Although this means the average CSHO’s hours per inspection is lower, it demonstrates a continued commitment to enforcement.
  • Average penalty per serious violation increased dramatically. Under $1,000 in 2009, the average penalty per serious violence reached a high of $5,232 in 2019.*
  • Records for the number of $100,000 penalty cases. In the first year of the Trump administration, there was a record-setting 218 cases with penalties of over $100,000. Last year it was 179 and the three years average is 199 cases, compared to a high of 202 cases in 2011 and an average of 168 cases under the Obama administration.*
  • Little change in the percentage of inspections that result in a serious, willful, or repeat violation. If an employer gets a knock on the door, there’s a very good chance that at least one serious, willful, or repeat violation will be issued. For the past two years, only 28% of inspections closed as “in compliance.” For those that were not in compliance, 87% had at least one serious, willful, or repeat violation in 2017 and 2018 and 86% in 2019.*
  • No let-up on repeat violations. Under the Obama administration, there were significant changes that increased the likelihood of a repeat violation. Workplaces in a corporate family were no longer treated as independent establishments, but as one workplace; in the guidance document, the Federal Operations Manual, the look back period was extended from 3 to 5 years, and there was proactive targeting of past violators for inspections. These practices have not changed. In fact, in 2018 OSHA successfully defended the case, Triumph Construction Corporation v. Secretary of Labor and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that OSHA is not bound by any look-back period on which to base a repeat violation, a significant expansion of the scope of repeat classifications.

    However, there was one bright spot for employers. In July 2018, the OSHRC issued its decision in Secretary of Labor v. Angelica Textile Services, Inc., providing employers guidance on rebutting repeat violations and clarifying the defenses that employers may have in combating repeat violations. Although the violations involved the same standards of LOTO and confined spaces, the OSHRC found that they were not “substantially similar” because the original violations involved wholesale deficiencies and the company had taken significant abatement actions, and therefore, the conditions differed. OSHA, however, remains committed to repeat violation enforcement, and the case is on appeal to the Second Circuit.

  • Increases in budget. Typically under a Republican administration there are budget cuts to limit enforcement, yet the budget has been increased twice with a 4% increase for FY20, including the enforcement category.
  • Penalties keep rising. Under the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act of 2015, the maximum allowable penalty amount for OSHA violations is adjusted annually. The latest increase occurred on Jan. 15, 2020. The maximum penalty for “willful” or “repeat” violations is now $134,937 and the maximum fine for serious, other-than-serious, failure-to-correct (per day), and posting-requirement violations increase is $13,494.
  • Criminal prosecutions continue. Two Department of Justice (DOJ) memos that expanded worker safety criminal prosecutions issued by former AG Sally Yates continue to be enforced by AG William Barr. The first relates to individual accountability for corporate wrongdoing and the second encourages the DOJ to use other environmental laws with more teeth and longer statute of limitations to prosecute worker safety crimes.
  • Site Specific Targeting Plan implemented. In Oct 2018, OSHA initiated the Site-Specific Targeting 2016 inspection program (SST-16) that uses the injury and illness data electronically submitted by employers in 2016. These are tough wall-to-wall inspections. The SST list includes 3,000 establishments and 1,000 inspections have already been conducted.*

Scale back in rules and public shaming

  • The first significant deregulation action was the overturning of the Volks rule by Congress under the Congressional Review Act in 2017. The Volks rule gave OSHA the ability to issue citations to employers for failing to record work-related injuries and illnesses during the 5-year retention period.
  • There also was a scale back of the e-recordkeeping rule, adopted in January 2019, that eliminated the requirement for the largest establishments (250+ employees) to annually submit electronically 300 Logs and 301 Incident Reports. However, the rule did not roll back as many provisions as expected, notably the anti-retaliation provision and public reporting concerns.
  • There has been a slowdown in rulemaking. Some rules moved to “long term actions,” including the Process Safety Management (PSM) Standard, Drug Testing Program and Safety Incentive Rules, and Combustible Dust.
  • There’s been a significant decrease in the number of enforcement press releases issued by OSHA, which can be inflammatory and issued before employers have an opportunity to respond. In 2019, 176 press releases were issued, compared with an average of 463 per year under the Obama administration.* However, the tone hasn’t reverted to the factual reporting of the Bush administration but has remained aggressive.

A look ahead

Inspections

It is projected that the number of inspections will remain steady or rise slightly as the budget includes funding for an additional 26 FTE CSHOs and five FTE whistleblower investigators. Expect to see an aggressive continuation of the SST-16 program that targets non-construction workplaces with 20 or more employees with elevated Days Away Restricted or Transferred (DART) rate, together with a random sample of low-rate establishments and those that did not submit the required electronic data.

The top four priorities are investigation of imminent danger, fatality and catastrophe investigations, response to complaints, and programmed inspections, such as SST and emphasis programs. In Oct. 2019, for the first time since 2015, OSHA changed the weighting system it uses for inspections:

  • Group A, criminal and significant cases (those where fines total more than $180,000): 7 Enforcement Units (EUs)
  • Group B, fatalities and catastrophes (hospitalization, amputation, physical loss of an eye), chemical plant National Emphasis Program, process safety management inspections: 5 EUs
  • Group C, the “fatal four” – caught-in, electrical, fall and struck-by hazards: 3 EUs (expect an uptick in construction industry inspections under this group)
  • Group D, priority hazards: amputation, combustible dust, heat, non-PEL overexposures, workplace violence, permit-required confined space, air contaminants, noise, and site-specific targeting: 2 EUs
  • Group E: everything else: 1 EU.

With these priorities, employers can expect to see more six-figure penalties.

Rulemaking

  • LOTO. Many employers were relieved when the term “unexpected energization” was not removed from the LOTO standard as proposed; however, OSHA left open the door to remove it in the future. In May 2019, the agency issued an RFI seeking input on control circuit type devices and robotics, but to date, OSHA has not provided updates on rulemaking action. There has been an uptick in requests for variances from businesses to consider safe robotic systems as energy-isolating devices. This is an opportunity to change the standard beneficially to reflect technological advances and bears watching.
  • Silica rule. The silica standard requires that medical surveillance must be offered to employees who will be exposed at or above the action level for 30 or more days a year starting on June 23, 2020. Employers with silica present need to document objective data that they do not have exposures at or above the action level under any circumstances.

    It’s anticipated that the recently requested feedback on expanding table 1 of the standard will result in additional engineering and work practice control methods that effectively limit silica exposure for the tasks and equipment currently listed in the table.

  • Beryllium. The compliance date for ancillary provisions in the beryllium standards for construction and shipyards is September 30, 2020. Enforcement of the engineering controls in the general industry standard starts March 10, 2020.
  • Workplace violence. OSHA plans to initiate a Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act review panel that will begin an effort to create a standard designed to address workplace violence in the healthcare and social services industries.
  • Other. Other possible new rulemakings will deal with powered industrial trucks, walking-working surfaces rule to clarify its requirements for stair rail systems, cranes and derricks in construction, communication tower safety, welding in construction confined spaces, occupational exposure to beryllium and beryllium compounds in construction and shipyard sectors, and updates to the Hazard Communication Standard.

*Conn Maciel Carey webinar, Annual OSHA Update: 2019 in Review and 2020 Forecast

Note: The information above applies to OSHA in federally mandated states. If you are located in a state where a state agency enforces the OSH Act, the information may differ.

 

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