OSHA Rule Would Reveal Rogue Employers

librarycongress.twolaborersThe truth of the adage that knowledge is power is evident in backlash against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s proposed rule to publicize companies’ health and safety records.

OSHA wants to eventually create a public web site containing workplace health and safety information. Businesses already have to report this information to OSHA and this information already supposedly  is public. In reality, however, the information is not accessible.

At present, an employee has to submit a formal information request to a government bureaucrat or  an often reluctant and suspicious employer. Moreover, this needlessly arduous and time consuming process makes it is virtually impossible to compare workplaces and industries.  (e.g., Is this mining company a callous rogue or simply a representative of a dangerous industry?)

Released in November 2013, the proposed rule requires electronic submission of workplace illness and injury data information. The agency will provide a secure website for data collection and insures that any data publicized will not include employee-identifying information. In a press release,  OSHA argues that timely, establishment-specific injury and illness data “will help OSHA target its compliance assistance and enforcement resources more effectively by identifying workplaces where workers are at greater risk, and enable employers to compare their injury rates with others in the same industry.”

As usual, the opposition is led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,  fresh from its victory in defeating a proposed rule by the National Labor Relations Board  to require employers to post notices informing workers of their right to work together to improve their working conditions under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

At a public meeting called by OSHA earlier this month, Baruch Fellner, a partner of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, which represents the national chamber, argued that OSHA is not authorized by statute to create a new, publicly searchable database of workplace injury and illness records.”This is completely beyond OSHA’s mandate,” decried  Fellner. (This was the chamber’s winning argument  to defeat the NLRA posting rule.)

Opponents contend that making employers’ injury and illness data publicly available could unjustly harm an employer’s reputation because the data would not be put into context or include information about the employer workplace safety programs and improvements. They also expressed concern for the potential misuse of this data by business competitors or (gasp!) trial attorneys.

It is certainly understandable that businesses with inordinately high numbers of workplace casualties would want to keep this information under wraps. However, that same argument could be made by convicted felons and sex offenders. Which begs the question – why is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce choosing to align itself with rogue businesses that create or tolerate  conditions that result in needless workplace injuries and deaths.

Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, says the  reporting rule would permit employers, employees, the government and researchers to have better access to data that will encourage earlier abatement of hazards and result in improved programs to reduce workplace hazards and prevent injuries, illnesses and fatalities. He notes that the proposal does not add any new requirement to keep records; it only modifies an employer’s obligation to transmit these records to OSHA.

It seems obvious that true public disclosure of health and safety data could change the equation for employers that now consider employee injuries and deaths to be cheaper than spending money on best practices and workplace safety.

If this is not OSHA’s mandate, what is?

The public has until Feb. 6, 2014, to submit written comments on OSHA’s proposed rule.

Under the proposed rule, initially establishments with more than 250 employees are required to electronically submit the records on a quarterly basis to OSHA. Establishments with 20 or more employees, in certain industries with high injury and illness rates, are required to submit electronically only their summary of work-related injuries and illnesses to OSHA once a year.

OSHA Suit Linked to Bullying

osha-logoThe U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has initiated what appears to be one of its first – if not its first – lawsuit involving  workplace bullying.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) filed the lawsuit earlier this month against a Fort Lauderdale business owner who fired a worker after the worker complained to OSHA that the worker was subjected to discrimination because he complained about hostile workplace conditions at the company.

According to an OSHA press release, Duane Thomas Marine Construction LLC and its owner, Duane Thomas, are charged with terminating the worker in violation of Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act).  Section 11 (c)  prohibits discriminating against any employee because the employee has filed a complaint related to the OSH Act or has exercised a right  afforded by the Act.  The employee was not identified by OSHA.

The case  involves what appears to be essentially a campaign of workplace bullying.

The OSHA press release states the employee complained that Thomas on numerous occasions between Dec. 9, 2009 and Feb. 25, 2011 “committed workplace violence and created hostile working conditions. He allegedly behaved abusively, made inappropriate sexual comments and advances, yelled, screamed and made physically threatening gestures, in addition to withholding the employee’s paycheck.”   The employee worked directly for Thomas at the company’s custom marine dock installation services site on Marco Island.

The case is significant because the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act requires employers to provide safe and healthful workplaces for their employees.  However, OSHA has not shown any leadership with respect to workplace bullying, even  though overwhelming research shows that workplace bullying causes potentially serious short and long-term health consequences.  OSHA typically enforces safety standards that relate to traditional industrial hazards, such as high noise levels, chemical exposure, electrical or fall hazards, etc.

Shortly after Thomas was notified of the OSHA complaint, OSHA states that Thomas  had the company’s computer passwords changed to deny the employee remote access to files and then terminated the employee.

The lawsuit seeks back wages, interest, and compensatory and punitive damages, as well as front pay in lieu of reinstatement. Additionally, it seeks to have the employee’s personnel records expunged with respect to the matters at issue in the case and to bar the employer from committing  future violations of the OSH Act.

Teresa Harrison, OSHA’s acting regional administrator in Atlanta, said, “Employees have the right to raise workplace violence concerns without fear of retaliation.”

The lawsuit, Solis v. Duane Thomas Marine Construction LLC and Duane Thomas, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Fort Myers Division.

Employees who believe that they have been retaliated against for engaging in protected conduct may file a complaint with the Secretary of Labor requesting  an investigation by OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program.   The  program enforces the whistleblower provisions of more than 20 statutes protecting employees who report violations of various workplace safety, airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, food safety, health insurance reform, motor vehicle safety, nuclear, pipeline, public transportation agency, railroad, maritime, and securities laws. Rights afforded by these whistleblower acts include, but are not limited to, worker participation in safety and health activities, reporting a work related injury, illness or fatality, or reporting a violation of the statutes.

OSHA: A Sleeping Giant Awakes?

whip in

Many countries around the world consider workplace violence to be an important worker health and safety issue but the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been oddly silent on this issue..

 That’s why it is significant that OSHA recently cited a  Dallas company for safety violations following a robbery that resulted in the  horrific death of a store clerk at a Whip In convenience store in Garland, Texas. 

 The OSHA citations carry proposed fines that are  underwhelming – $19,600.   However, the action sends a message to convenience store owners that they would be well advised to pay attention to the issues of workplace violence. 

 In May of 2012, the store clerk, Nancy Harris, 76, died from second- and third-degree burns after she was set on fire during the robbery. Police said Matthew Lee Johnson, 36, arrived at the Whip-In shortly after the store opened at 7 a.m. on a Sunday. Officers said he carried in a bottle of flammable liquid and used it to douse Harris and then set her on fire — after clearing out the cash register.

OSHA cited TMT Inc., owner of the Whip In chain,  for four serious safety violations.  OSHA contends that if the employer had implemented appropriate control measures and provided training to ensure awareness of potential violence, it is possible that Ms. Harris’ death could have been avoided.

OSHA could not cite any specific violations of their safety standards, so each store was cited with violating OSHA’s “general duty clause” for failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause serious injury or death.

While the fine is a pittance, it is not inconceivable that the TMT will face a civil lawsuit as a result of Ms. Harris’ death and  the OSHA action could be a significant factor in  such a lawsuit.

 OSHA’s Dallas Area Office opened an investigation at the Garland store in May after the robbery and later investigated the company’s three other stores in Dallas and Mesquite. OSHA  found that workers at those locations were exposed to the same or similar workplace violence hazards.  TMTemploys more than 60 employees across the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), of the 4,547 fatal workplace injuries that occurred in the United States in 2010, 506 were workplace homicides.

  OSHA defines workplace violence as any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation or other threatening and disruptive behavior that occurs at a work site.  According to OSHA, workplace violence  includes behavior ranging from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide. It can affect and involve employees, clients, customers and visitors.

 More information on workplace violence is available at OSHA’s website at www.osha.gov/SLTC/workplaceviolence.

Workplace Bullying: The Big Picture

I am pleased to be quoted in a  Businessweek  feature on the problem of workplace bullies but I also find it frustrating that  the American media consistently fails to see the big picture about this serious national problem.

Workplace bullying is not just about misguided individuals who bully co-workers and subordinates. More importantly, it is about American employers.

American employers permit bullying in the workplace because there is no law or regulation that requires them to stop it – despite the fact that it is widely recognized as a form of workplace violence. Other industrialized countries recognize workplace bullying as an important public health and safety problem. And decades of research show that workplace bullying causes targets to suffer potentially severe emotional and physical harm.

Only employers can stop workplace bullying. Employees who are targeted for bullying generally are completely helpless to do anything about it, especially if the bully is a superior.

Why don’t employers stop it?

Because in America, workplace bullying is seen as a prerogative of the employer. In fact, some unscrupulous employers use bullying strategically to accomplish a goal – such as to avoid unions, downsize without paying unemployment compensation, or to evade a potential worker’s compensation claim. In my own practice of law, I saw many cases where employees were bullied and driven out of the workplace by an employer after they complained about wage theft (which, by the way, is epidemic in the United States). 

Why don’t workers do anything about it?

The vast majority of American workers are completely priced out of the American legal system and,  besides, federal judges (who have lifetime tenure barring bad behavior) are appallingly ignorant and unsympathetic to claims of  employment discrimination and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.

So one in three or four American workers are bullied by employers, either directly or because the employer tolerates or fails to stop an abusive workplace environment.  

This all  stands in sharp contrast to other industrialized countries – including the European Union – where authorities recognize workplace bullying as a major problem and have placed the burden of eliminating workplace bullying squarely on employers.

Activitists in the United States have been spinning their wheels for more than a decade in an attempt to get a state-by-state solution to the problem of workplace bullying but the only real answer lies with the federal government.  States should act – and I hope they will act – but this is not the solution.  Today, many states will do virtually anything to attract new business; it is wishful thinking that they will voluntarily pass a law protecting targets of workplace bullying  if they can gain any competitive edge by not doing so. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has acknowledged the problem by enacting workplace bullying protections for its own employees but it has failed to take any steps to protect the health and safety of millions of American workers across the nation.

This blog is a member of the coalition Protect-US-Workers that has launched a petition drive asking U.S. President Barack H. Obama and U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis to formulate a national response to the problem of workplace bullying.

Talk to your legislators. Sign the petition.