Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Occupational Safety and Health Act’

Undermining Worker Safety — Despite Laws and Shutdowns

Monday, February 4th, 2019

Regulatory doo doo — to use the technical term — seems to be where the Department of Labor is finding itself these days.  And Democrats in Congress along with the Department of Labor’s Inspector General are not amused.

At the request of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Congresspersons Bobby Scott (D-VA), Mark Takano (D-CA), Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), DOL Inspector General Scott Dahl has agreed to Audit the Department of Labor’s regulator process. The main focus will be on the Wage and Hour Division’s proposal to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to operate power-driven patient lifts in nursing homes without supervision, as well as OSHA’s recent decision to roll back parts of the agency’s electronic recordkeeping regulation.

Regulations (and OSHA standards) are important. Congress passes laws like the Occupational Safety and Health Act or the Mine Safety and Health Act or the Clean Water Act, which give agencies a general mandate to protect workers and the environment. But regulations put meat on the bones of the laws. The OSHAct gives employers the legal responsibility to maintain safe workplaces and gived OSHA the authority to set standards and cite employers who violate those standard. And it’s the regulatory process that enables OSHA to issue those specific standards — like those protecting workers from falls, amputations, silica or asbestos exposure.

Rolling back “burdensome” regulations (along with cutting taxes and appointing more conservative federal judges) are the main reasons that otherwise more-or-less sane Republicans continue to support an ignorant, racist, malignant narcissist in the White House.

The business community and Republicans in Congress generally hate regulations, which is why you almost never hear them mention the word “regulation” without the words “job-killing” preceding it. In fact, rolling back “burdensome” regulations (along with cutting taxes and appointing more conservative federal judges) are the main reasons that otherwise more-or-less sane Republicans continue to support an ignorant, racist, malignant narcissist in the White House.

And there’s a process for issuing regulations and standards.  All government regulatory activity falls under the Administrative Procedure Act which ensures that agencies follow some basic steps when they issue new regulations or change existing regulations and lays out the basis for regulatory actions in the public record. New regulations or regulatory changes may not be “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion” and must be based on evidence on the record. The Occupational Safety and Health Act has many additional rules for issuing OSHA standards.  Regulations that were not developed (or rolled back) according to proper administrative procedure can be struck down by the courts.

In addition, the Data Quality Act requires the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to issue government-wide guidelines that “provide policy and procedural guidance to Federal agencies for ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information (including statistical information) disseminated by Federal agencies.”

The legislators’ letter asked the Labor Department’s Inspector General (OIG) to investigate whether DOL had deviated from agency regulatory and data quality requirements when it issued the patient lift proposal. According to Deborah Berkowitz at the National Employment Law Project

In order to support this proposal, the Labor Department cited a ‘survey’ of Massachusetts vocational programs that purportedly demonstrated that the current policy ‘restricts’ young teens from being hired to work in nursing homes. Although the Department has ignored repeated requests from Congress and advocates to provide the survey for public review and comment, NELP has obtained a copy.

It became immediately clear why the Department wouldn’t produce the document. This seven-year-old survey, conducted using Survey Monkey, compiled responses from a scant 22 vocational programs in Massachusetts. Half the respondents did not even know what the policy was in the first instance.

The bottom line is that in this administration, when it comes to undermining worker safety and health, neither shutdowns, nor furloughs, nor well-established federal laws governing regulation can stop or even slow the priorities of the business community.

And as Suzy Khimm at NBC News points out, the child labor proposal is not the only area in which DOL is having problems:

The Labor Department is facing legal challenges over other deregulatory actions affecting workers. Last week, the department undid an Obama-era regulation requiring certain employers to submit detailed reports of workplace injuries electronically, arguing that it risked violating workers’ privacy. Last year, the department made it easier for small businesses and self-employed people to buy health insurance that does not comply with the Affordable Care Act. Both changes have spurred lawsuits alleging that officials failed to follow legally required procedures for rule-making.

Dahl is already investigating the Labor Department’s handling of a proposal to allow restaurant managers and owners to take workers’ tips and place them in a tip-sharing pool that includes bosses. Bloomberg Law reported last year that the administration hid its own projection that the change would allow management to skim $640 million in gratuities. (The administration later backed off the change.)

Meanwhile, the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) has come under criticism not only for how agencies regulate, but when the regulate. As we’ve noted several times before, OSHA — and apparently the White House — were in such a hurry to roll back OSHA’s electronic recordkeeping rule that they managed to rush it out right in the middle of the government shutdown.  As House Education and Labor Committee Chair Bobby Scott said in a statement

“It is notable that despite the many important issues being neglected during this partial government shutdown, the administration found time to finalize a rule that shields employers from accountability for the health and safety of their employees. President Trump pledged to defend the American worker, but this is yet another decision that violates that promise.”

OIRA decided that it was allowed to move regulatory actions forward during the shutdown as long as the regulatory actions came from a funded agency (like the Department of Labor).  Some find that interpretation rather dubious. Quoted in Government Executive, Sam Berger, an attorney who worked for OMB during the 2013 shutdown now with the Center for American Progress,

pointed to the shutdown procedure standard being used in the Federal Register, as published in a bulletin by the National Archives and Records Administration. Under the Jan. 14 Justice Department guidance, he said in an email to Government Executive, “funded agencies [must show] delaying publication until the end of the [shutdown] would prevent or significantly damage the execution of funded functions at the agency.”

For OIRA, he said, the standard “is the same for any part of government that isn’t funded, but that works with funded agencies. If the rule is excepted (for example, necessary to protect life and property) then OIRA can bring staff on to review,” he added, arguing that OIRA can’t justify bringing back furloughed employees to process the OSHA rule. If the agency is funded (as is the Labor Department), “then OIRA can only bring staff on if not moving forward with the rule during the shutdown would prevent or undermine the funded function.”

The bottom line is that in this administration, when it comes to undermining worker safety and health, neither shutdowns, nor furloughs, nor well-established federal laws governing regulation can stop or even slow the priorities of the business community.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on February 1, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 
About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and I spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Kavanaugh: Threat to Workers and to OSHA

Wednesday, July 11th, 2018

While most of the discussion of President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court focuses on the possibility that he will be the deciding vote to repeal Rowe v. Wade or that the will bend over backwards to help Trump out of the Russia investigation, there is clear evidence that Kavanaugh is overly friendly to corporate America, and hostile to workplace safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the environment.

In 2010 a killer whale dismembered and drowned a Sea World trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in front of hundreds of horrified men, women and children looking forward to a day of fun and frolic with sea animals. The whale that killed Brancheau had been implicated in three previous human deaths.

OSHA issued a $70,000 willful General Duty Clause Citation against Sea World and ordered the company to reduce the hazard by physically separating trainers from the whales. OSHA proved that Sea World and its employees knew from previous incidents and close calls that the all of its killer whales were dangerous, and that Tilikum, the whale that killed Brancheau, was particularly dangerous.  Experts also described a feasible means of protecting employees — actions that Sea World in fact implemented following Brancheau’s death.

The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission upheld OSHA’s citation, and Sea World appealed to the Court of Appeals. The D.C. Circuit court decided 2-1 in favor of OSHA. The Court found that  “There was substantial record evidence that Sea World recognized its precautions were inadequate to prevent serious bodily harm or even death to its trainers and that the residual hazard was preventable,” and that there was substantial evidence that there were feasible means to protect employees without impacting the business. The majority opinion upholding OSHA’s action was written by Circuit Judge Judith Rogers. Also supporting OSHA was Chief Judge Merrick Garland.

The lone dissenter, opposing OSHA’s citation, was Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

According to former OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels, “In his dissent in the Sea World decision, Judge Kavanaugh made the perverse and erroneous assertion that the law allows Sea World trainers to willingly accept the risk of violent death as part of their job.  He clearly has little regard for workers who face deadly hazards at the workplace.”

Judge Kavanaugh made the perverse and erroneous assertion that the law allows Sea World trainers to willingly accept the risk of violent death as part of their job.  He clearly has little regard for workers who face deadly hazards at the workplace.  —  David Michaels

Garland, as you may remember was nominated to the Supreme Court in 2016, following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, infamously refused to consider Obama’s nomination, allowing Trump to appoint Neil Gorsuch to the Court. And the lead attorney representing Sea World was Eugene Scalia, son of deceased Justice Antonin Scalia.

Are Whale Shows A Sport Like Football?

Kavanaugh calls OSHA’s action “arbitrary and capricious” because regulating the safety of killer whale shows is allegedly no different than regulating the safety of tackling in football, or speeding in sports car racing, or punching in boxing — things in which OSHA has never involved itself.  And just as you’d have no football if you didn’t have tackling, or no sports car racing if you didn’t have speeding, there would allegedly be no Sea World if there was no close human contact with killer whales.

One problem with this argument, as Rogers points out, is that no one — except Kavanaugh — claims that whale shows are a sport where you are there to see who “wins.”

Or, to put it more bluntly, people go to boxing matches to watch people punch each other, and go to football games to watch one team physically stop the other from scoring. But tourists — including small children — go to Sea World to watch attractive trainers lovingly interact with adorable sea creatures. Killer whale shows are not supposed to be modern gladiatorial contests where the audience looks forward to seeing whether the trainers will successfully keep their limbs attached or finish the show bleeding and dead at the bottom of a pool.

Not even Sea World made the football/car racing/boxing analogy, Rogers and Garland point out. By making that argument, Kavanaugh is just makin’ stuff up — adding his own opinions on matters that weren’t even part of the case.

Second, as the majority opinion points out, “physical contact between players is ‘intrinsic’ to professional football in a way that it is not to a killer whale show.” Spectators can take pleasure from a whale jumping out of the water and doing back flips even without close personal contact with a human trainer.

In fact, the show went on even after the OSHA citation. Following Brancheau’s death, Sea World implemented many of the controls that OSHA recommended in its General Duty Clause citation — and still managed to attract customers to the park — and even to the killer whale shows — without the close personal contact.

Hostility Toward OSHA

Kavanaugh’s dissent drips with hostility toward OSHA and a basic misunderstanding of the act and the principles — and law — behind it. Comparing killer whale shows to football, boxing, car racing, as well  as other “extremely dangerous” sports such as “Ice hockey. Downhill skiing. Air shows. The circus. Horse racing. Tiger taming. Standing in the batter’s box against a 95 mile per hour fastball….” etc., etc., Kavanaugh objects to OSHA’s “paternalistic” intervention because “the participants in those activities want to take part.”

And then goes on to state (cue the heroic music)

To be fearless, courageous, tough – to perform a sport or activity at the highest levels of human capacity, even in the face of known physical risk – is among the greatest forms of personal achievement for many who take part in these activities. American spectators enjoy watching these amazing feats of competition and daring, and they pay a lot to do so.

He then asks:

When should we as a society paternalistically decide that the participants in these sports and entertainment activities must be protected from themselves – that the risk of significant physical injury is simply too great even for eager and willing participants? And most importantly for this case, who decides that the risk to participants is too high?

Not “the bureaucracy at the U.S. Department of Labor,” according to Kavanaugh.

Happily, Garland and Rogers were more knowledgeable about the Occupational Safety and Heath Act than Kavanaugh. They point out that the OSHAct puts the duty on the employer to create a safe workplace, not on the employees to choose whether or not they want to risk death — especially when the employer can make the workplace safer.

Kavanaugh’s idea of making America great again apparently hearkens back to a time before the Workers Compensation laws and the Occupational Safety and Health Act were passed.  Back then employers who maimed or killed workers often escaped legal responsibility by arguing that the employee had “assumed” the risk when he or she took the job and the employer therefore had no responsibility to make the job safer.  Maybe the worker even liked doing dangerous work.  Employers also escaped responsibility by showing that the worker was somehow negligent. (Interestingly, Sea World originally blamed Brancheau for her own death because she hadn’t tied her hair back.)

Kavanaugh’s idea of making America great again apparently hearkens back to a time before the Workers Compensation laws and the Occupational Safety and Health Act were passed.

Rogers and Garland were forced to remind Kavanaugh that the employer’s duty under the OSHAct isn’t reduced by “such common law doctrines as assumption of risk, contributory negligence, or comparative negligence.”

Workers Comp laws, originally passed in the early 20th century, were supposed to be no-fault. It didn’t matter who was at fault, if the worker was hurt, the worker got compensated.  And the OSHAct, passed in 1970, further states clearly and unequivocally that the employer is responsible for ensuring that the workplace is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees,” and sets up a mechanism to enforce the law and penalize employers who violated it.  Even if the macho employee wants to defy death, the law states that the workers may not work at heights without fall protection or go down into deep trenches without shoring. And it’s the employer’s job to make sure that employees are not endangered.

Did Brancheau enjoy her job? Undoubtedly.

Did she “willingly accept the risk of violent death as part of their job?”  Unlikely. And legally irrelevant.

Did she deserve a safe workplace? Absolutely.

Nothing New Under the Sun?

Kavanaugh also objected to OSHA’s citation because the agency allegedly “departed from tradition and stormed headlong into a new regulatory arena.”

Well, first, Congress put the General Duty Clause into the OSHAct to address “unique” recognized hazards for which there is no OSHA standard.

Second, objecting to OSHA “storming into a new arena” brings back memories of the arguments used by previous OSHA heads, politicians and the health care industry when unions petitioned the agency in the late 1980’s for a bloodborne pathogens standard to prevent HIV infection and over 300 health care worker deaths a year from hepatitis B. At that time, infectious diseases were “a new regulatory arena.” Thankfully, Judge (or Justice) Kavanaugh wasn’t around then to rule on that standard. Thousands of health care workers owe their lives to OSHA’s move into the “new regulatory arena” of infectious diseases.

Bad for the Environment

Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette-Mail reminds us that Kavanaugh is not only anti-worker (and anti-OSHA), but also anti-environment (and anti-EPA). In 2011, Kavanaugh was the lone dissenter in a case where Arch Coal had challenged the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to cancel a mountain-top removal permit that had been issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The 2,300-acre Spruce operation that would have buried more than seven miles of streams.  “The EPA cited the growing scientific evidence that mountaintop removal mining significantly damages water quality downstream and noted an independent engineering study that found Arch Coal could have greatly reduced the Spruce Mine’s impact.”

Kavanaugh’s argument is that EPA didn’t do a proper cost benefit analysis. Suddenly becoming a champion of working people and unions (at least when it benefits the company), Kavanaugh argued that EPA had failed to factor in the costs of  putting more than 300 United Mine Workers union members out of work.  Once again, Kavanaugh was making stuff up (legally). Arch Coal hadn’t even made that argument.

Kavanaugh also criticized the agency’s examination of potential damage to aquatic life as an “utterly one-sided analysis.” Perhaps the fish had also “accepted the risk” of living in streams near coal deposits.

One of the judges in the majority was an Ronald Reagan pick, and the other was appointed by President Obama.

Conclusion

Kavanaugh stated at last night’s press conference that one of his legal principles is that “A judge must interpret statutes as written.”  He might have added that to interpret the law as written, one must first read and understand the law.

He also warmly told the world that his mother was a prosecutor whose trademark line was: “‘Use your common sense. ‘What rings true? What rings false?’ That’s good advice for a juror and for a son. ”

Indeed it is. And maybe he could explain to the parents and husband of Dawn Brancheau why it rings false to him that the company responsible for their daughter’s safety should be held responsible for her death —  and held to the same standard as every other employer in the country.

Until he does that, he doesn’t belong on the Supreme Court.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on July 10, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Do Fewer OSHA Inspectors Matter?

Wednesday, January 17th, 2018

One sign that anti-OSHA conservatives are getting nervous about articles (and television appearances) highlighting the declining number of OSHA inspectors are articles questioning whether government plays a useful role in protecting workers. In this case, the Reason Foundation, which “advances a free society by developing, applying, and promoting libertarian principles, including individual liberty, free markets, and the rule of law,” has concluded that reducing the number of OSHA inspectors has no effect on workplace safety.

When I see an article entitled Will Deregulation Kill Workers? by Reason Magazine assistant editor Christian Britschgi, normally I wouldn’t bother to give them any undeserved attention, but some of the arguments he uses are, unfortunately, still commonly used by conservatives in the media and Republicans in Congress, and from time to time we need to expose them.

Based on writings by Bentley University economist John Leeth, Britschgi is basically saying that OSHA isn’t needed because “Employers have much stronger incentives than OSHA to provide a safe workplace.” What are these “stronger incentives” that make OSHA enforcement superfluous?

Workers Compensation: Workers comp, they note, grows more expensive with new injuries and accidents.  And it’s much more significant than OSHA penalties because “workers comp policies cost employers $91.8 billion in 2014…. Total OSHA penalties in that same year totaled only $143.5 million.”

OK, well first, if those numbers are relevant, then that sounds like a great argument to increase OSHA penalties significantly. But the fact is, because State legislatures and courts have undermined workers compensation benefits for injured workers, workers comp covers less and less of the real cost of workplace injuries and illnesses, according numerous studies cited in a 2015 OSHA report, Adding Inequality to Injury:

workers’ compensation payments cover only a small fraction (about 21 percent) of lost wages and medical costs of work injuries and illnesses; workers, their families and their private health insurance pay for nearly 63 percent of these costs, with taxpayers shouldering the remaining 16 percent.

Moreover, most workers injured or made ill on the job don’t even receive workers compensation and vulnerable and low-wage workers fare even worse.  Finally, compensating workers for occupational disease is almost non-existent. One study estimates that as many as 97 percent of workers with occupational illness are uncompensated.

Labor markets: Workers would rather work where it’s safe, so they will naturally take jobs working in safer companies rather than unsafe companies. Unsafer companies will therefore be forced to pay workers more to attract them to their unsafe workplaces.  This will provide a natural incentive for employers to make their workplaces safer because if their workplaces are safer, they won’t have to pay workers as much.

Now I’m not a credentialed economist, but even I can find major holes in this theory.  First, such a theory relies on workers having perfect information about which companies are safer than others. Now, this is interesting, because that’s exactly the theory the Obama administration used when issuing its electronic recordkeeping standard. Companies would be required to send their injury and illness information to OSHA and OSHA would post that information, allowing workers to choose safer companies. What’s interesting is that corporate America and Trump’s OSHA has done everything it can to ensure that employer safety records are not made public, from discouraging press releases to opposing the OSHA recordkeepign regulation, claiming that such information unjustly “shames” employers.

The “labor market” theory also assumes that workers would be able to simply and easily move from one (unsafe) employer to another without any loss of income –even assuming there is a safer employer down the street. Obviously that’s often not possible and in any case, that’s easier for high wage workers to lose a little income by changing jobs than lower wage employees who may be living paycheck to paycheck.  And if there are enough desperate workers who need a job, any job, that higher paying, unsafe job isn’t going to pay more for very long.  You’ll have the more common race-to-the-bottom, rather than a race to the top.

Finally, this equation puts workers in a position of choosing between safe jobs or better pay. If you happen to be in a post-Obamacare world with no health insurance and have a sick kid, you might be inclined to take the unsafe, higher paying job.  This is not a choice that we want workers to be forced to make — either from the viewpoint of morality, or the general public welfare. The whole point of the Occupational Safety and Health Act was to eliminate the need for workers to ever have to choose between their jobs and their lives, or better pay and their live.

The ability to sue over workplace injuries and health hazards: Huh? Employees don’t have the ability to sue over workplace injuries. The deal when workers compensation laws were first created is that this would be a “no-fault” system; workers give up the right to sue their employer, in return for relatively certain access to benefits following their injury. (Or at least that was the theory.) Britschgi would have known that (and taken safety and health more seriously) if he had read this article and listened to the accompanying video.

That fact that Britschgi, an assistant editor of Reason Magazine (and presumably his superiors) don’t know that workers can’t sue their employers should have sent this article directly to my Trash folder, so why am I bothering to even address it? I mean, for all I know, he’s 18 years old and this is his first job. Give the kid a break.

Because, as I said above, clearly he is not alone in his ignorance. There are undoubtedly lots of other people out there who think that workers can sue their employers. And easily move to safer jobs. And just rely on workers comp if they get hurt.

The bottom line is that more cops on the beat will make drivers drive more safely, just as more OSHA inspectors will make employers provide safer workplaces. It’s as American as law and order.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on January 16, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Hotel Housekeepers: Tipping as Hazard Pay?

Tuesday, October 31st, 2017

portrait

The New York Times has an article about failure of most hotel guests to give low-paid, hard-working housekeepers a much appreciated tip. Aside from the hard work they do,  the Times also notes the hazards of the job.

Angela Lemus, a housekeeper at the Wyndham Boston Beacon Hill who makes $19.91 per hour, said through a translator that in addition to scrubbing tubs and taking out trash, she sometimes has to clean blood or other medical waste from rooms….Desk clerk jobs don’t require the flipping of heavy mattresses or exposure to cleaning chemicals that can lead to respiratory and other health problems. Ms. Lemus, for example, developed an allergy to the latex gloves she was required to wear while cleaning. “It went on for years, and it got so bad my hands started to bleed,” she said. “I couldn’t let people see my hands.”

And let’s not forget musculoskeletal disorders from lifting bed mattresses and the threat of workplace violence from guests.

But are these really the same issue?  Are tips the solution to dangerous working conditions, or is elimination of hazards the solution to safe working conditions?  The Occupational Safety and Health Act says that all workers have a right to a safe workplace, whether they receive tips or not.

Implying the tips make it OK to work in hazardous conditions makes them sound like “hazard pay” and hearkens back to the good old pre-OSHA days where workers allegedly agreed to “assume” the risks of a job in return for a paycheck.

We’ve supposedly come a long way since then. Workers — even hotel housekeepers — deserve a living wage (including tips) for their work, AND workers have right to a safe workplace.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on October 31, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)

When VPP Companies Kill

Friday, October 20th, 2017

Over the past month, two workers have been killed at companies participating in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs: Nucor Steel in Decatur, Alabama where Melvin Gant Jr. fell into a vat of the waste products of finished rolled steel, and a contractor at Valero Oil Refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, Ezequiel Guzman Orozco, who died after allegedly falling from a scaffold.

I say “allegedly,” because Valero claims that the worker, an employee of Brand Energy Solutions, actually died from a heart attack, although “the medical examiner’s office said preliminary notes from Guzman Orozco’s autopsy showed there was blunt-force trauma to his body.”  The Valero case appears to be a VPP double-whammy as the contractor, Brand Energy Solutions at Valero, is also a VPP participant.

Participants in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program are supposed to be the best of the best.  The purpose of the program, according to OSHA is to “recognize employers and workers in the private industry and federal agencies who have implemented effective safety and health management systems and maintain injury and illness rates below national Bureau of Labor Statistics averages for their respective industries.” But, of course, the VPP program is more than just a recognition program, it also exempts VPP participants from programmed inspections — those inspections that stem from National or Regional Emphasis Programs, or any other OSHA targeting program.

Despite the goals of the program, sometimes things don’t go as expected, as we have seen recently at Valero and Nucor.

It will be interesting to see how OSHA deals with these fatalities. At the beginning of the Obama administration, VPP had come under significant criticism for allowing unqualified companies — even companies that where workers had died and had received willful citations — to remain in VPP.  In fact, a 2009 fatality at a Valero facility was highlighted by The Center for Public Integrity’s Chris Hamby in an article on hazardous conditions at VPP facilities that are allowed to remain in VPP despite evidence of major safety and health problems. In response to these problems, and in an effort to ensure that no company could simultaneously be a member of VPP and OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program at the same time,  OSHA issued a new policy in 2013 setting up a process for terminating VPP sites that had experienced fatalities or received a willful violation, but providing an opportunity to appeal the termination to the Assistant Secretary. Deaths among the contractors of VPP participants were considered to be the same as the death of an employee of the participant itself. Nucor has a history of fighting fatality-related terminations, even going to Congress to block OSHA’s actions. Valero, as we have seen, is claiming that the death was not work-related.

Meanwhile, the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants Association (VPPPA) continues to lobby for a bill that would make VPP permanent by writing it into the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The bill has been introduced every year for the past fifteen years, and is currently cosponsored by Reps. Todd Rokita (R-IN), Gene Green (D-TX) and Martha Roby (R-AL). Labor and most Democrats have generally opposed the bill as unnecessary, and also because the current version prohibits participant fees to support the program, fails to require union agreement with their employer’s participation and weakens criteria for admission to the program.

But the main problem with VPP — at least according to the VPPPA — remains unresolved: the failure of the program to grow over the past several years. The reason for the program’s failure to grow is lack of funding.  Under the Bush administration, the program tripled in size, growing to the point where OSHA no longer had the resources to maintain the integrity of the program. There was an enormous backlog of VPP reapproval applications, which meant that hundreds of sites were not being reviewed to ensure that they were still qualified to be part of VPP.  Under the Obama administration, OSHA chose to focus its resources on the program’s integrity (e.g. ensuring scheduled reapprovals) rather than growing its size. The fact that OSHA has not had a budget increase since 2010 has meant that the number of participant have slowly declined as some participants have dropped out or been terminated, while few resources are available to bring in new members.  Neither Trump’s proposed budget nor the budget proposals of the House or the Senate will change this equation much. And, as we reported yesterday, OSHA’s main hiring focus at this point seems to be on inspectors, not compliance assistance staff — which is as it should be.

OSHA has held two stakeholder meetings to “recalibrate” VPP “so that it continues to represent safety and health excellence, leverages partner resources, further recognizes the successes of long-term participants, and supports smart program growth.”  Additional comments were accepted through today.  We shall see what comes out of these discussion. Given the budgetary impedements to growth, the need for OSHA to focus on its core tool — enforcement — and VPPPA’s refusal to consider viable solutions like a fee-based program or graduating long-term participants out of VPP, it’s unlikely that any ideas will surface that will significantly change the program.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on October 20, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)

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