Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

OSHA Weakens Workers’ Protections Against Retaliation for Reporting Injuries

October 12th, 2018 | Jordan Barab

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a memo Thursday weakening workers’ protection against employer retaliation for reporting injuries and illnesses.

Section 1904.35(b)(1)(iv) of the Obama administrations 2016 “Electronic Recordkeeping Rule” told employers that “You must not discharge or in any manner discriminate against any employee for reporting a work-related injury or illness.”

According to Deborah Berkowitz, former OSHA policy director under the Obama administration:  “Protection from retaliation when reporting an injury is a core worker right enshrined in both the OSHA law and OSHA regulations. It is outrageous that this Administration is trying to roll back these core protections and allow industry to further hide injuries and illnesses. ”

This is the same recordkeeping regulation that requires some employers to send in their injury and illness logs to OSHA, information that the Obama administration had planned to use for research, targeting inspections and publish on OSHA’s website. OSHA is currently proposing to repeal the second part of that regulation that would require employers to send in more detailed information.

Background

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that around 3.7 million workers are seriously injured in the workplace every year. But the BLS and other researchers have shown wide-spread underreporting of injuries and illnesses — mainly because employers discourage workers from reporting — making the true toll to be two to three times greater—or 7.4 million to 11.1 million.

During the comment period leading up to issuance of the 2016 regulation, workers and researchers testified and submitted evidence about how employers discouraged reporting by retaliating against workers for reporting injuries and illnesses. The feared that the regulation would increase such retaliation and called for OSHA to strengthen protections beyond the weak language in Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Protection from retaliation when reporting an injury is a core worker right enshrined in both the OSHA law and OSHA regulations. It is outrageous that this Administration is trying to roll back these core protections and allow industry to further hide injuries and illnesses.  — Deborah Berkowitz, former OSHA Policy Director

Employer associations like the Chamber of Commerce hated OSHA’s anti-retaliation language and some are particularly upset that OSHA didn’t include repeal of that language in their current attempt to weaken the regulation.

Of course, they would never admit to actually wanting to retaliate against workers from reporting, so they focused their opposition on two areas where retaliation was common that OSHA emphasized in the preamble to the regulation: rate-based incentive programs that discourage workers from reporting injuries, and post-injury drug tests that employers often require with the intent of discouraging workers from reporting injuries or illnesses.

The memo that OSHA issued did not change the wording of the regulation; it just affected how effectively OSHA inspectors would be able to enforce the language.

Incentive Programs

Workers described common employer incentive programs where an employer would offer some kind of prize to a group of workers that would then be withdrawn if a worker reported an injury. As the preamble described:

An employer might enter all employees who have not been injured in the previous year in a drawing to win a prize, or a team of employees might be awarded a bonus if no one from the team is injured over some period of time. Such programs might be well-intentioned efforts by employers to encourage their workers to use safe practices. However, if the programs are not structured carefully, they have the potential to discourage reporting of work-related injuries and illnesses without improving workplace safety. The USW provided many examples of employer incentive policies that could discourage reporting of work-related injuries and illnesses.  One employer had a policy that involved periodic prize drawings for items such as a large-screen television; workers who reported an OSHA-recordable injury were excluded from the drawing.

The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine noted that many of its member physicians reported knowledge of situations where employers discouraged injury and illness reporting through incentive programs predicated on workers remaining “injury free,” leading to peer pressure on employees not to report.

A 2012 GAO study found that rate-based incentive programs, which reward workers for achieving low rates of reported injury and illnesses, may discourage reporting.

Incentive programs are based on the “blame the worker” theory of accident prevention. That theory states that if only workers would be more careful, there wouldn’t be as many injuries. And offering workers a prize will encourage them to be more careful. Actually, most workplace incidents are caused by unsafe conditions — machines without guards, slippery floors, lack of fall protection, etc. — not worker carelessness.

Giving out prizes or bonuses doesn’t prevent injuries – it discourages injured workers from reporting their injuries.  Workers don’t need bonuses to work safely, they need safe workplaces.”   — Dr. David Michaels, former OSHA Assistant Secretary

As former OSHA director David Michaels explained, “No one avoids getting hurt simply to get a prize at the end of the week or a bonus at the end of the year. Giving out prizes or bonuses doesn’t prevent injuries – it discourages injured workers from reporting their injuries.  Workers don’t need bonuses to work safely, they need safe workplaces.”

The OSHA regulation didn’t prohibit all incentive programs. Those incentive programs that reward workers, for example, for activities “such as identifying hazards or participating in investigations of injuries, incidents, or “near misses” were perfectly acceptable. Only incentive programs based on injury or illnesses rates were prohibited if they led to underreporting of injuries or illnesses.

OSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary Dorothy Dougherty issued a memo in 2016 laying out for OSHA inspectors how this language was to be enforced.  The memo stated that the anti-retaliation language:

prohibits taking adverse action against employees simply because they report work-related injuries or illness. Withholding a benefit—such as a cash prize drawing or other substantial award—simply because of a reported injury or illness would likely violate section 1904.35(b)(1)(iv) regardless of whether such an adverse action is taken pursuant to an incentive program. Penalizing an employee simply because the employee reported a work-related injury or illness without regard to the circumstances surrounding the injury or illness is not objectively reasonable and therefore not a legitimate business reason for taking adverse action against the employee.

Consider the example of an employer promise to raffle off a $500 gift card at the end of each month in which no employee sustains an injury that requires the employee to miss work. If the employer cancels the raffle in a particular month simply because an employee reported a lost-time injury without regard to the circumstances of the injury, such a cancellation would likely violate section 1904.35(b)(1)(iv) because it would constitute adverse action against an employee simply for reporting a work-related injury.

Return to Blaming the Worker

The new memo, issued last week under the signature of Kim Stille, Acting Director of Enforcement Programs, stated instead that “Rate-based incentive programs are also permissible under § 1904.35(b)(1)(iv) as long as they are not implemented in a manner that discourages reporting.” [emphasis added]

How would an employer ensure that precautions are taken to ensure that employees feel free to report an injury or illness, even if the incentive program results in withholding a prize or bonus because of a reported injury? According to the OSHA memo:

An employer could avoid any inadvertent deterrent effects of a rate-based incentive program by taking positive steps to create a workplace culture that emphasizes safety, not just rates. For example, any inadvertent deterrent effect of a rate-based incentive program on employee reporting would likely be counterbalanced if the employer also implements elements such as:

  • an incentive program that rewards employees for identifying unsafe conditions in the workplace;
  • a training program for all employees to reinforce reporting rights and responsibilities and emphasizes the employer’s non-retaliation policy;
  • a mechanism for accurately evaluating employees’ willingness to report injuries and illnesses.

So how is that going to work exactly?

A worker suffers a serious cut on his hand while working on an unguarded machine the day before the lottery for a new riding mower ends.  Fearing that his co-workers will hate him for causing them to lose a chance for the prize, he sticks his bloody hand in his pocket and heads to the local urgent care to have it sewed up, telling them that he did it while working on his car.

Even if OSHA finds out that the incentive program caused the worker to hide the injury, the employer is now home free if there was also a program that rewarded workers for attending safety meetings that identify unsafe conditions in the workplace.

Or they’re safe if the employer conducted a training program that emphasized that they really, really, really wanted employees to report injuries, and they would never in a million years consider retaliating against them (Oh, and if you and your buddies lose the chance at winning the riding mower because you cut your hand, well that’s a shame. Better be more careful next time.)

 

Drug Testing

When developing the regulation, OSHA also compiled evidence that drug testing had been used by employers to discourage injury and illnesses reporting. For example, drug tests were sometime ordered for injuries that couldn’t have been caused by intoxication, such as musculoskeletal injuries that are “often caused by physical workload, work intensification, and ergonomic problems.” The preamble to the regulation therefore referenced as impermissible drug tests administered “irrespective of any potential role of drug intoxication in the incident” and used to deter proper reporting.

OSHA’s original 2016 memo instructed inspectors very clearly that the regulation does not “prohibit drug testing conducted under a state workers’ compensation law or other state or federal law” nor does it prohibit employers from drug testing employees who report work-related injuries or illnesses “so long as they have an objectively reasonable basis for testing.”

The regulation “only prohibits drug testing employees for reporting work-related injuries or illnesses without an objectively reasonable basis for doing so.”

And the 2016 policy put a heavy burden of proof on the agency, stating that “OSHA’s ultimate burden is to prove that the employer took the adverse action because the employee reported a work-related injury or illness, not for a legitimate business reason.”

In addition, the drug testing had to measure actual impairment, which meant that OSHA would only permit tests for alcohol use, which is the only drug test that can actually measure impairment.

Furthermore:

Drug testing an employee whose injury could not possibly have been caused by drug use would likely violate section 1904.35(b)(1)(iv). For example, drug testing an employee for reporting a repetitive strain injury would likely not be objectively reasonable because drug use could not have contributed to the injury. And, section 1904.35(b)(1)(iv) prohibits employers from administering a drug test in an unnecessarily punitive manner regardless of whether the employer had a reasonable basis for requiring the test.

Employers objected to OSHA’s “intrusion” into their right to drug test employees any time, for any reason. After all, they argued, they should be able to do anything to achieve a drug-free workplace — whether or not employees were using drugs at work or impaired at work, and whether or not the drug testing caused workers to hide their injuries.  And some erroneously warned that the anti-retaliation language would conflict with other laws that mandated or allowed drug testing in certain situations.

The new policy leaves this policy mostly unchanged on paper — allowing drug testing in the same situations it was allowed before — where required by other laws and permitting it when used “to evaluate the root cause of a workplace incident that harmed or could have harmed employees” as long as all involved employees are tested, and not just those who were injured.

But actual enforcement of the language for retaliatory drug testing will inevitably be weakened because the new memo removes language prohibiting drug testing for obviously unrelated injuries or illnesses like musculoskeletal injuries, and removes language prohibiting post-injury drug test except for alcohol.

And the burden of proof for inspectors will now be even higher. Instead of showing that the employer required drug testing just “because the employee reported a work-related injury or illness,” the new burden of proof is to show that “the employer took the action to penalize an employee for reporting a work-related injury or illness rather than for the legitimate purpose of promoting workplace safety and health.”

So is an employer home free if they swear that the drug testing was not intended to penalize anyone, but just to “promote safety and health,” (even if it had the effect of discouraging employees from reporting?)  We shall see.

Will this memo be enough to satisfy employers who don’t like the anti-retaliation language? Unlikely. In response to OSHA’s recent proposal to roll back on section of the recordkeeping rule, several employers submitted testimony calling for repeal of the entire regulation — including the anti-retaliation language.

These are Trump Times, after all. It’s the least they can expect.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on October 12, 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).

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