By: Jay P. Krupin, Kara M. Maciel, Eric J. Conn

As we reported in our blog post in November of 2010, hotel housekeepers across the nation launched a concerted program of filing complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) alleging a range of ergonomic and chemical exposure injuries sustained on the job. Government regulators and legislators are now taking action in response to these complaints. We have attached a series of articles discussing the nature of the complaints and the government’s response to them.

Specifically, the OSHA complaints were filed in eight cities across the country, including Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Long Beach, San Antonio, Honolulu and Indianapolis. We understand that similar OSHA actions may occur, or have already begun, in Boston, NYC, DC, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Miami, and Orlando with higher concentrations of hotel properties. This is the largest example of employees of a single private employer filing multi-city OSHA complaints, and it appears to be a coordinated effort with organized labor, UNITE HERE. The housekeepers allege injuries arising from their daily room quotas and argue that cleaning rooms and lifting heavy mattresses lead to accidents and workplace injuries. The complaints also allege that hotel employers are not providing adequate safety training, particularly relating to these ergonomic issues as well as exposure to cleaning chemicals and bloodborne pathogens. The housekeepers recommend several solutions, including changes to fitted sheets, mops and other equipment used to clean a room, as well as a cap on their daily room quota.

The housekeepers’ complaints have met a receptive audience with OSHA and other government entities, and these entities are now beginning to respond. For example, after months of investigation as a direct result of these complaints, OSHA in Indiana has issued a set of Serious Citations to one hotel with fines totaling nearly $55,000. The Citations allege that the hotel and/or one of its contractors responsible for housekeeping, violated several OSHA standards related to training and recordkeeping. At the same time, a bill that which would require hotels to use fitted sheets, mops and long-handled tools, and other potentially burdensome requirements, is quickly making its way through the California legislature (SB 432). Reports indicate that this legislation could cost the industry tens of millions of dollars.

Hospitality employers must be on alert for similar OSHA complaints at their properties, particularly in light of the aggressive new enforcement campaign against employers by the Obama Administration’s OSHA. Since Obama’s Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, and Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, David Michaels, have taken the reins at OSHA, enforcement has risen sharply, both in terms of the number of enforcement actions and the size of penalties. The Department of Labor’s budget last year funded 100 new compliance officers, and, tellingly, required OSHA to shift many of its staff who had been working on compliance assistance programs into enforcement. As a result, last year, OSHA nearly tripled the number of significant cases (citations including fines of $100,000 or more), and projects that it will see another 7% increase in the number of inspections in conducts in 2011. OSHA also recently unveiled a new “Severe Violator Enforcement Program,” under which OSHA will target employers that it believes disregard their obligations through willful, repeated, or multiple violations. This will lead to significant increases in OSHA inspections at workplaces with a history of health and safety violations, and also will drive a nationwide inspection program of related workplaces. Thus, if OSHA believes that the violation at a particular hotel is indicative of a pattern of non-compliance, it will launch investigations into other hotels owned or operated by the same company. This company “profiling” should put all hotel operators on high alert.

In light of the significant increase in OSHA enforcement and the concerted efforts of organized labor to force OSHA’s hand, it is important for hotels to take worker safety issues seriously and to have a plan in place should OSHA launch an investigation into their respective properties. Additionally, because OSHA investigators are more likely to approach local managers at each property, it is important that these managers receive proper training on OSHA regulations and how to comply with an OSHA investigation. Hotels should take the necessary steps now to ensure compliance with applicable federal and state requirements through attorney-client self-audits.