DOL Proposes Rule Change Permitting Unions to Participate in OSHA Workplace Walk-Throughs
On August 29, 2023, the United States Department of Labor (DOL) published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would permit union representatives and other nonemployees to participate in workplace inspections conducted by Occupational Safety and Health Act Compliance and Safety Officers (CSHOs).
Section 8(e) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) currently allows “a representative of the employer and a representative authorized by employees the opportunity to accompany CHSOs during the physical inspection of the workplace for the purpose of aiding the inspection.” The OSHA and 29 CFR part 1903 give CSHOs the authority to resolve any disputes about who the employer and employee representatives are and to deny any person from participating in the inspection whose conduct interferes with a fair and orderly investigation. The CSHO also has the authority to permit additional employer representatives and representative authorized by employees to participate in the workplace walk-throughs. See 29 CFR 1903.8(a).
OSHA has historically mandated that the representative authorized by employees for a worksite inspection be an actual employee. Over the years, OSHA has offered guidance on its interpretation of section 1903.8(c) and the definition of “representative authorized by employees”. In 2003, OSHA issued a letter of interpretation (the Racic Letter) in response to the question of whether a union representative who files a complaint on behalf of a single worker could act as a walk-through inspection representative in a workplace that had no labor agreement. OSHA determined that there was “no provision for a walkaround representative who has filed a complaint on behalf of an employee of the workplace.” See, ID OSHA – 2023-0008-0002. Ten years later, in 2013, OSHA issued a second letter of interpretation (the Sallman Letter) stating that workers at a worksite without a collective bargaining agreement could designate a union or community organization for purposes of an OHSA walk-through inspection as long as it had been “authorized by employees to serve as their representative”. OSHA then withdrew the Racic Letter as confusing.
In October 2015, OSHA updated its Field Operations Manual (FOM) to incorporate its interpretation of 29 CFR 1903.8(c). In doing so, it stated that there may be instances where workers without a certified or recognized bargaining agent would benefit from a third party representing them at an OSHA inspection. However, in 2016, The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), challenged the Sallman Letter by filing suit in the Northern District of Texas arguing that the Sallman Letter was at odds with OSHA regulations, should have been subject to notice and comment rulemaking, and that it exceeded OSHA’s statutory authority. The district court concluded: 1) that the Sallman Letter contradicted §1903.8(c) which clearly required that the employee representative be an employee himself; and 2) that a change to a regulation must be subject to notice and comment rulemaking. The court did, however, reject the NFIB’s argument that the Sallman Letter conflicted with OSHA itself, concluding that OSHA requires the employee’s representative to be authorized by the employees, not necessarily that the representative be an employee himself. See, Nat’l Fed’n of Indep. Bus. v. Dougherty, 2017 WL 1194666 (N.D. Tex. Feb. 3, 2017). In the wake of that decision, OSHA rescinded the Sallman Letter and removed the language referencing it in the FOM.
Having now, engaged in the proper notice and comment rulemaking process, OSHA’s proposed rule change seeks to broaden the types of individuals who may serve as a representative of the employees during OSHA’s physical inspections of the workplace:
- The representative authorized by the employees may be an employee OR a third party (i.e., a union representative, a bilingual interpreter, an expert on a particular piece of equipment, occupational hygienist, etc.).
- A third-party representative authorized by employees may be reasonably necessary to conduct an effective and thorough physical workplace inspection by virtue of her knowledge, skills, or experience.
The proposed change would permit a union representative, even where employees are not represented by a union or in the absence of a collective bargaining agreement, to participate in an OSHA workplace inspection. The DOL and OSHA believe that the rule change strengthens OSHA’s ability to obtain critical information regarding worksite conditions and hazards everywhere – not just in facilities where the employees are represented by unions. Critics of the proposed rule change argue that OSHA is promoting infiltration of private employer property for unionization efforts.
The DOL seeks written comments on the proposed rule change by all stakeholders by October 30, 2023. If you have any questions about the DOL’s proposed rule change or OSHA workplace inspections, please contact John A. McCreary, Jr. at (412) 394-6695 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Janet K. Meub at (412) 394-6506 or email@example.com.
John A. McCreary, Jr. is a shareholder in the employment and labor and public sector groups of Babst Calland. His practice spans the full range of issues encountered in the employment setting, including labor contract negotiation and administration, grievance arbitration, benefit plan issues, disputes over hiring practices, wrongful termination claims, as well as litigation over pension and benefit entitlements. Contact him at 412-394-6695 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Janet Meub is senior counsel in the Litigation and Employment and Labor groups of Babst Calland. Ms. Meub has significant experience in the areas of employment and labor law, professional liability defense, insurance coverage and bad faith litigation, toxic tort litigation, nursing home negligence, and medical malpractice defense. She has a diversified practice that includes defending employers, healthcare providers, law enforcement and other professionals, and non-profits, at all levels of civil litigation through trial. Contact her at 412-394-6506 or email@example.com.
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Reprinted with permission from the September 14, 2023 edition of The Legal Intelligencer© 2023 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved.