As we reported on Epstein Becker & Green’s Financial Services Employment Law Blog, the Department of Labor - OSHA announced earlier this month that employees protected by the whistleblower provisions in any one of the 22 statutes administered by OSHA, from claims of retaliation under the OSH Act based on workplace safety and health complaints, to financial fraud whistleblower retaliation under the Affordable Care Act or Sarbanes-Oxley, can now file their retaliation complaints with OSHA on-line. Specifically, in a December 5, 2013 press release, OSHA revealed a new web-based tool available for whistleblowers to submit their complaints to OSHA directly on-line, and introduced the on-line complaint form itself.
In the press release, David Michaels, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, explained that “[t]he ability of workers to speak out and exercise their rights without fear of retaliation provides the backbone for some of American workers’ most essential protections. Whistleblower laws protect not only workers, but also the public at large and now workers will have an additional avenue available to file a complaint with OSHA.”
The online form, which is already live, provides employees an additional, and for many a much easier, way to file a retaliation complaint to trigger OSHA’s investigative process. Previously, employees had to mail a written complaint, visit an OSHA office in-person, or place a telephone call to 1-800-321-OSHA (6742) or to one of OSHA’s Regional or Area offices. Now that filing a complaint is faster, more efficiency, and linked to the familiarity of the internet, we expect an increase in the likelihood that some employees, who might not otherwise have filed complaints, may now do so.
The online form asks employees to list or select from a set of choices the basic information about their complaints. The complaints will then be followed-up on by investigators, who will contact the whistleblowers to obtain any more detailed information needed by OSHA to determine how to proceed against the employer.
This new accessibility to OSHA for whistleblowing on-line is similar to the on-line ease with which employees can provide tips regarding wrongdoing or apply for bounties under some of the same statutes, such as tips to the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Commodity Futures Trading Commission under the Dodd-Frank Act. This on-line whistleblower retaliation form is another step in OSHA’s broader effort to make employee protections and information about those protections more accessible to the public. For example, OSHA had already set up a webpage to educate employees about the whistleblower protections available to them.
The online complaint tool and other web-based outreach to employees is having precisely the effect that OSHA desired, as the number of whistleblower complaints filed with OSHA has grown each of the last five years (i.e., ever year under the current Administration), from 2,160 in FY 2009, to 2,920 in FY 2013. OSHA released a comprehensive data set reflecting whistleblower activity over the past decade. In addition to growth in the total number of complaints filed, the number of complaint determinations made by OSHA also grew substantially in 2013 – by nearly 15% to 3,272 (up from 2,865 in FY 2012). In 2013, however, case determinations by OSHA were much more likely to be made in favor of the whistleblower than in recent years. Still, cases that OSHA found to have “merit” continue to be rare -- only 2.3% (or 76 complaints) in FY 2013 were found to have merit.
I was recently asked an interesting question by an industry contact:
"Employers often are told to know and exercise their rights during an OSHA inspection. What exactly are employers' rights during an OSHA inspection?"
While it may not feel like it during an inspection, employers have many rights before, during, and after OSHA inspections.
Before an inspection even begins, employers have a right under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to be free in their workplaces, just as they are in their homes, from unreasonable searches and seizures, which includes inspections by OSHA. What that means is, OSHA may not inspect a workplace unless the Agency has administrative probable cause (a lower burden than criminal probable cause) to believe that a violative condition exists within. Accordingly, employers have a right to demand an inspection warrant that establishes OSHA’s probable cause to inspect. We rarely advise clients to demand an inspection warrant; rather we try to negotiate with the Agency over a reasonable scope of the inspection, and with such an agreement, waive the warrant right and consent to the inspection.
Another right employers should consider asserting with regard to OSHA inspections is the right to exclude non-employee third parties (such as a union representative at a non-union workplace) from participating in the inspection process. OSHA recently issued a formal Interpretation Letter of the regulation covering who may participate in OSHA walk-around inspection (29 C.F.R. 1903.8(c) - Representatives of Employers and Employees). Specifically, OSHA expressed its belief that employees at a non-union worksite may authorize a third party affiliated with a union or community organization to act as the employees’ representative during an inspection. Notwithstanding OSHA's interpretation letter, the plain language of the standard makes it clear that such involvement by a third party union representative is not permitted under the law, and employers may exercise their rights to exclude third parties from the inspection by demanding and challenging a warrant under those circumstances. If confronted with such a situation, employers should consult with legal counsel before allowing any non-employee third party to participate. One approach would be to demand and challenge an inspection warrant. If the non-employee is permitted on the premises, employers should be explicit about who bears responsibility for any injury to that person, who is responsible for any PPE, determine whether that person is trained on any hazards that may be present or has any necessary security clearances for sensitive activities that may be in view, and how to protect any proprietary processes from being revealed. Here is an article we wrote on this issue when the interpretation letter was released.
Also before inspections begin, employers have the right to an opening conference. In my opinion, this is the most important stage of the inspection because it is the time when employers can:
- Negotiate to narrow the scope of the inspection;
- Can ask questions about the purpose of and probable cause justifying the inspection; and
- Try to establish ground rules with OSHA about how the inspection may proceed, from the collection of documents (through written requests only), to interviews (scheduled in advance), and physical access to the facility (only with a management escort).
If the inspection was initiated by an employee or former employee complaint, employers also have a right to access a copy of the complaint before consenting to the inspection.
Once an OSHA inspection begins, employers also have many rights, including a right to accompany the compliance officer at all times during the walkaround, and to take side-by-side photographs or other physical evidence that OSHA takes during the inspection. Another important right relates to management interviews. Interview statements by management representatives bind the company, and since the OSH Act gives employers the right to be present when binding statements are taken, employers therefore have a right to be present and participate in interviews of management witnesses, regardless of whether the management witness wants the representative there.
The OSHA/Hyatt Hotels saga continued with a recent exchange of letters between OSHA and the hotel chain’s attorney. In April, OSHA issued a “5(a)(1) letter” to the CEO of Hyatt Hotels, indicating that OSHA believed there were ergonomic risks associated with the daily work activities of the company’s housekeeping staff. The letter put the hotel chain “on notice” that while OSHA did not believe that a “recognized hazard” existed at the time of the inspection, such that a General Duty Clause citation should issue, if the same hazard was later ...
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