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March 26, 2020 Does the OSH Act Give an Employee the Right to Refuse to Work Due to Fear of Workplace COVID-19 Exposure?

Sigel

 Song

By Gabrielle Sigel  and Leah M. Song

 

Responding to COVID‑19, many state and local governments are issuing orders encouraging or requiring workers to stay at home (“Stay-At-Home Order”) unless their employment is deemed to be in an “essential business” or “critical infrastructure industry.” Whether working in an essential business or where no Stay-At-Home Order has been issued, employees may express concerns about, or refuse, coming to work due to fear of contracting COVID‑19 at work.  The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (“OSH Act” or “the Act”) prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee for exercising rights under the Act.  If an employer fires or takes other action against an employee who walks off the job due to COVID‑19 fears, is the employee exercising a right under the Act, such that the employer could face a government lawsuit for retaliating against the employee?  Although this discussion is limited to refusal to work rights and responsibilities under the OSH Act, as with many issues raised by the novel coronavirus, the answer will be fact-specific and may be unique to this public health crisis.  After analyzing the applicable law below, we provide practical suggestions for how employers and their counsel can analyze the issue if raised at their workplace.

I.  The OSHA Anti-Retaliation Provisions

Since the OSH Act’s enactment in 1970, Section 5(a)(1) of the Act states that “[e]ach employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” 29 U.S.C. § 654 (“the General Duty Clause”).  From its beginning, the OSH Act also has provided that an employer cannot “discharge or in any manner discriminate against any employee” because the employee complains about a safety issue to management or OSHA or “because of the exercise by [an] employee on behalf of himself or others of any right afforded by this Act.”  29 U.S.C. § 660(c) (“Section 11 of the OSH Act”); see also 29 CFR Part 1977.  If an employer takes discriminatory action in retaliation, the Secretary of Labor (“the Secretary”) can sue the employer, under Section 11 of the OSH Act, in federal district, to require reinstatement, back pay, and “all appropriate relief.”  29 U.S.C. § 660(c)(2).  However, the OSH Act does not expressly address how employees can exercise their rights when there is an imminent risk of death or serious bodily injury and a reasonable belief that there is not sufficient time or opportunity to seek redress from OSHA or the employer.

Interpreting Section 11 in 1973, OSHA issued its anti-retaliation regulation at 29 CFR § 1977 (the “OSHA anti-retaliation regulation”), addressing whether, under what circumstances, and how an employee could refuse to perform work under the Act.  Section 177.12(b)(1) (emphasis added) states:

[A]s a general matter, there is no right afforded by the Act which would entitle employees to walk off the job because of potential unsafe conditions at the workplace. Hazardous conditions which may be violative of the Act will ordinarily be corrected by the employer, once brought to his attention. If corrections are not accomplished, or if there is dispute about the existence of a hazard, the employee will normally have opportunity to request inspection of the workplace pursuant to section 8(f) of the Act, or to seek the assistance of other public agencies which have responsibility in the field of safety and health. Under such circumstances, therefore, an employer would not ordinarily be in violation of section 11(c) by taking action to discipline an employee for refusing to perform normal job activities because of alleged safety or health hazards.

29 CFR § 1977.12(b)(1) (emphasis added).

Despite this initial statement that employees do not have the right to walk off the job, in the next paragraph the regulation acknowledges that exigent circumstances may exist that would trigger employee protections for refusing to work.  Section 1977.12(b)(2) states:  “[O]ccasions might arise when an employee is confronted with a choice between not performing assigned tasks or subjecting himself to serious injury or death arising from a hazardous condition at the workplace,” and, on those occasions, an employer cannot take action against the employee.  29 CFR § 1977.12(b)(2).  Specifically, if:  (1) “the employee, with no reasonable alternative, refuses in good faith to expose himself to the dangerous condition;” (2) “a reasonable person… would conclude that there is a real danger of death or serious injury;” (3) due to the urgency of the situation, there is insufficient time “to eliminate the danger through resort to regular statutory enforcement channels;” and (4) the employee “sought from his employer, and was unable to obtain, a correction of the dangerous condition,” an employer taking action against the employee refusing to work could be subject to a Section 11 lawsuit brought by the Secretary.  Id.; see also 29 U.S.C. § 660(c).

OSHA has published guidance on the issue, Workers’ Right to Refuse Dangerous Work, cautioning that “OSHA cannot enforce union contracts that give employees the right to refuse to work,” but explaining the steps that workers should take if they believe working conditions are dangerous, the employer fails to eliminate the imminent danger, and there is not enough time to address the condition through regular enforcement channels:

  1. Ask your employer to correct the hazard, or to assign other work;
  2. Tell your employer that you won’t perform the work unless and until the hazard is corrected; and
  3. Remain at the worksite until ordered to leave by your employer.

Notably, this OSHA guidance does not answer the question presented by COVID‑19:  an employer’s obligations and an employee’s rights when OSHA’s direction to “remain at the worksite” is at the root of an employee’s claim of a dangerous condition.  

II.  Caselaw and OSHA Guidance Interpreting Section 11 and the OSHA Anti-Retaliation Regulation

Not surprisingly, there are no reported court cases interpreting the OSHA anti-retaliation provisions in the context of potential exposure at the workplace to a contagious illness, much less a pandemic.  However, court decisions interpreting the OSHA anti-retaliation regulation in the context of other workplace risks are instructive as to how those provisions may be applied to the workplace risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus.

The foundational case upholding a worker’s OSH Act right to refuse to work is the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Whirlpool Corp. v. Marshall, 445 U.S. 1 (1980).  In Whirlpool, two employees refused to conduct maintenance tasks that previously had led to the death of a fellow employee, claiming that the risk had not been eliminated despite repeated employee complaints to management.  When the employees refused to conduct the task the day after their call to OSHA, the employer sent them home without pay and put reprimands in their files.  The Secretary filed suit against the employer, alleging unlawful discrimination against the employees in violation of Section 11 of the Act, as interpreted by the OSHA anti-retaliation regulation.  On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the issue was whether the OSHA regulation “authorizing employee ‘self-help’ in some circumstances . . . is permissible under the Act.”  445 U.S. at 8.  The Supreme Court first found that the OSHA regulation allowing workers to “avoid workplace conditions that they believe pose grave dangers to their own safety” “conforms to the fundamental objective of the Act—to prevent occupational deaths and serious injuries” and that the regulation rationally complemented the Act’s remedial scheme.  Id. at 11-12, 21. 

The Court then conducted an analysis of the Act’s legislative history.  The Court noted that the provisions in the OSH Act were different from those in other acts protecting workers, such as the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) and the Labor Management Relations Act.  Id. at 17, n. 29.  The Court also found that

Congress very clearly meant to reject a law unconditionally imposing upon employers an obligation to continue to pay their employees their regular paychecks when they absented themselves from work for reasons of safety.  But the regulation at issue here does not require employers to pay workers who refuse to perform their assigned tasks in the face of imminent danger.  It simply provides that in such cases the employer may not “discriminate” against the employees involved.  An employer “discriminates” against an employee only when he treats that employee less favorably than he treats others similarly situated.

Id. at 18-19 (emphasis added).  The Court concluded that the OSHA regulation explaining that it is an employee’s right to refuse to perform an assigned task because of a reasonable apprehension of death or serious injury, coupled with a reasonable belief that no less drastic alternative is available, was a “valid exercise of [the Secretary’s] authority under the Act.”  Id. at 22.

In Whirlpool, the Court found that the employees “were clearly subjected to ‘discrimination’ when [their employer] placed reprimands in their respective employment files,” but the Court left to the lower court on remand to determine if the denial of pay for time they did not work was discrimination.  Id. at 19, n. 31. 

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Whirlpool, the Secretary has successfully obtained awards of back pay, reinstatement, and other relief under Section 11 of the Act and the anti-retaliation regulation.  See, e.g., Perez v. Clearwater Paper Corp., 184 F. Supp. 3d 831 (D. Idaho 2016) (employer who retaliated against its employee for complaining about health hazards was required to pay back pay, severance pay, emotional distress and punitive damages); Perez v. U.S. Postal Service, 76 F. Supp. 3d 1168 (W. D. Wash. 2015) (employer who retaliated against its employee when he helped another employee file a complaint with OSHA was required to pay lost wages from denial of promotion, travel, housing, and medical expenses, and emotional distress damages, and expunge the employee’s personnel record); see also Secy. v. Lear Corp. Eeds and Interiors, 822 F.3d 556, 561-62 (11th Cir. 2016) (the Secretary has power under Section 11 to enjoin an employer’s state court lawsuit alleging tortious defamation by employees who raised health and safety concerns if Secretary finds that the employer’s tort claims are baseless and retaliatory or preempted by federal law); Reich v. Hoy Shoe Co., 32 F.3d 361, 368 (8th Cir. 1994) (“an employer that retaliates against an employee because of the employer's suspicion or belief that the employee filed an OSHA complaint has as surely committed a violation of § 11(c) as an employer that fires an employee because the employer knows that the employee filed an OSHA complaint”).

The Secretary’s prosecution of Section 11 lawsuits typically uses a burden-shifting framework, consistent with other lawsuits for discrimination, in which the burden shifts to the employer if the Secretary has established a prima facie case.  See Solis v. Blue Bird Corp., 404 Fed. Appx. 412, 413 (11th Cir. 2010) (the district court properly used “the burden-shifting framework laid out in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green,” 411 U.S. 792 (1973), in a Section 11 retaliatory discharge case).  For example, in Chao v. Blue Bird Corp., 2009 WL 485471 (M.D. Ga., Feb. 26, 2009), the Secretary brought suit under Section 11 of the OSH Act when an employer discharged an employee after he raised safety concerns about a work assignment and demanded further training.  Id. Blue Bird, 2009 WL 485471 at *2-4; see 29 CFR § 1977.9.  Applying McDonnell Douglas, the court found:  “Claims alleging wrongful discharge in retaliation for exercising rights afforded under the Act are analyzed under the burden-shifting framework” under which the Secretary “must present sufficient evidence to satisfy the elements of her prima facie case.”  Blue Bird at *3 (citation omitted).  To establish a prima facie case, “the Secretary must show by a preponderance of the evidence that (1) [the employee] engaged in protected activity; (2) [the employer] took adverse action against [the employee]; and (3) a causal connection exists between the protected activity and the adverse action.”  Id. (citation omitted).  “If a prima facie case is established, the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the employment action.  Id.  If articulated [by the employer], the [Secretary] must show that the [employer’s] reason was pretextual in order to prevail.”  Id. (citation omitted). In Blue Bird, the court found that the employees’ actions were proper and protected under the Act, that the employer’s discharge and other actions violated the Act, and that the employer’s justification for its action was pretextual, and ordered the employee’s reinstatement with all prior benefits and back pay. 

On January 1, 2016 OSHA’s Directorate of Whistleblower Programs, which investigates potential Section 11 claims before they are filed in court, issued an agency-wide memo; “Clarification of the Work Refusal Standard Under 29 CFR 1977.12(b)(2)” (the “Work-Refusal Memo”).  OSHA noted that there were “five requirements for a protected work refusal:”

  • a reasonable apprehension of death or serious injury,
  • a good faith refusal,
  • no reasonable alternative,
  • insufficient time to eliminate the condition through regular statutory channels, and
  • where possible, the employee sought and was unable to obtain a correction of the dangerous condition.

Work-Refusal Memo, p. 2.  The last page of the Work-Refusal Memo has a flowchart showing how OSHA analyzes whether an employee’s work refusal is protected under the Act.  Among other points, OSHA clarifies that “[i]t is not an absolute requirement that a complainant [employee] call federal or state OSHA after being instructed to perform a dangerous task.”  Id., p. 3.  However, “OSHA should determine whether (1) the called federal or state OSHA and, if not; (2) whether there was a period of time during which the complainant reasonably could have contacted Federal or state OSHA but did not do so.”  OSHA also takes the position that an “employee voluntary quit” after “protectable refusal to work” may be considered a constructive discharge, that can trigger Section 11 liability.  Id., pp. 5‑6. 

III.  Minimizing Risk of an OSH Act Retaliation Claim During the COVID‑19 Crisis

In sum, under the OSH Act, employees are not given an unfettered right to walk off the job or refuse to work, even in response to a dangerous condition.  Moreover, employees are not necessarily entitled to pay if they refuse to work.  However, employees generally are protected from discriminatory action by an employer if they stop work when they reasonably believe that they will be forced to work under dangerous conditions, risking death or serious injury, and they have no other recourse.  Discriminatory actions are those treating an employee “less favorably” than others similarly situated.  Whirlpool, 445 U.S. at 19.  OSH Act protections are separate from those under labor contract laws.  See, e.g., Whirlpool, 445 U.S. at 17, n. 29; N.L.R.B. v. Tamara Foods, Inc., 692 F.2d 1171 (8th Cir. 1982) (non-unionized employees have a protected right under the NLRA to walk off worksite after repeated exposures to ammonia fumes); see also, Hatzel & Buehler, Inc. v. Orange & Rockland Utilities, Inc., 1992 WL 391154, *5, n.10, 10-13 (D. Del. Dec. 14, 1992) (contractor cannot rely on its employees’ rights under OSHA anti-relation regulation to claim impossibility of performance of work involving asbestos exposure).

The medical science regarding COVID‑19 and the virus’ transmission is still growing.  To bring an action against an employer, the Secretary would first need to demonstrate that exposure to COVID‑19 (or the virus) in a particular workplace presents a “real danger of death or serious injury.”  See 29 CFR § 1977.12(b)(2).  Still, an employer will want to take precautions to avoid being sued by the Secretary for retaliatory conduct if employees raise COVID‑19 concerns or refuse to come to work out of fear of the disease.  To protect against an OSH Act Section 11 claim, employers and their counsel will want to consider the following:

First, an employer should not take any potentially retaliatory actions merely because an employee raises a COVID‑19 safety concern or if the employee contacts OSHA about that concern.  See 29 CFR § 1977.9 (employee’s rights to raise safety concerns and/or contact OSHA protects employee from any retaliation in response).

Second, in response to an OSHA inquiry, complaint, or inspection, the employer would be well‑advised to demonstrate its compliance with potentially applicable OSHA regulations, such as PPE standards, e.g., 29 CFR § 1910.132. 

Third, although OSHA recognizes that “[t]here is no specific OSHA standard covering COVID‑19,” the employer should consider its workplace conditions in light of OSHA’s “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID‑19” (“the OSHA Guidance”), issued on March 11, 2020 (and any updates thereto).  As discussed in a previous article on the COVID‑19 OSHA Guidance, OSHA recommends steps that employers should take to protect workers at different levels of risk, using OSHA’s “hierarchy of controls” framework for addressing workplace risks ( i.e., engineering controls, followed by administrative controls, safe work practices, and PPE).  Notably, OSHA recognizes that for “most employers,” they can protect their employees just by implementing “basic infection prevention measures.”  OSHA Guidance at 8, 20-22. 

Fourth, if a fellow worker contracted COVID‑19 and had been at the worksite within at least 14 days prior, the employer should consider the adequacy of its cleaning of the affected work area.  See CDC’s “Environmental Cleaning and Disinfection Recommendations”; OSHA Guidance at 9-10. 

Fifth, the employer should evaluate whether the employer has control over the worksite conditions that are the subject of the complaint and whether a change in operations or additional precautions are possible and appropriate, especially given that the business may be deemed “essential.”  See OSHA Guidance at 11-12.  This evaluation, and potential implementation of additional hazard controls, can demonstrate that the employer took appropriate steps to address the hazard, as explained in 29 CFR § 1977.12(b)(1).

Sixth, the employer should consider the action it should take in response to an employee’s refusal to come to work or to work as instructed, given that it may be the employer’s obligation to show that its action was not discriminatory, i.e., no different than taken with respect to others working in the same circumstances.  The employer will want to show that the reasons for its actions, including, for example, discharge, were non-discriminatory, including whether those measures are equally applied, consistent with existing company policies and procedures, and otherwise not a pretext for retaliating against an employee taking allegedly lawful action.

As with many employment law issues, dealing with employees’ concerns is both delicate and crucial to a business’s success, particularly in these fraught and novel times.  Careful consideration of Section 11 OSH Act responsibilities should be a key part of the employer’s COVID‑19 legal compliance analysis. 

See Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Coronavirus Resource Center for further articles regarding legal issues facing our community in the wake of the public health emergency.

CATEGORIES: Hazmat, OSHA

PEOPLE: Gabrielle Sigel, Leah M. Song

March 23, 2020 Does Environmental Investigation and Remediation Continue Despite COVID-19 Business Restrictions and Social Distancing?

Bandza Linkedin_Steven_Siros_3130 SigelBy: Alexander J. Bandza, Steven M. Siros, and Gabrielle Sigel

DigAs the United States rapidly transitions to working from home (when possible) companies involved in environmental investigations or remediation work must determine whether such field or other work could, should, or must continue in the days, weeks, and months ahead. The world is pivoting to tackle COVID-19, a public health crisis, and many of the “essential services” exempted from stay-at-home/shelter-in-place orders (“Restriction Orders”) include work involving public health and safety, as well as critical infrastructure services. Therefore, any person with ongoing environmental investigation and remediation work (“environmental field work”) has to consider whether that work would be or should be included in the category of “essential services.”

From a policy standpoint, whether environmental field work should be considered “essential” requires an evaluation of the people and the environment potentially put at risk, the likelihood of that risk, and the resources the work uses. Continuation of environmental field work may benefit public health and the environment, but it also is occurring at some cost to public health and safety. For example, environmental projects use personal protective equipment (“PPE”) and laboratory equipment and personnel that may be able to be allocated to medical and other scientific research needs. Furthermore, some environmental field work requires close human contact and, at a minimum, will require travel to work and other activities that the Restriction Orders and federal and CDC guidelines are seeking to avoid. In addition, environmental contractors may not be able to perform work if key personnel are not available to work due to travel restrictions, health impacts, or family obligations. Thus, the consideration of whether environmental field work should continue during the COVID-19 crisis requires weighing complex public health and safety needs and risks.

To help those considering whether and how to continue environmental field work, evaluate the following:

(1)     Am I allowed to do the environmental field work under a state or local COVID-19 Restriction Order?

(2)     If I cannot continue under a Restriction Order or for other reasons, how do I protect my company’s interests to avoid penalties and other liabilities under the consent decrees, administrative orders, or various other agreements with or regulations imposed by state and federal environmental agencies; and

(3)     If I am allowed to or required to continue the work, what regulations pertain to how to do the work safely?

1.    AM I ALLOWED TO DO THE WORK UNDER A RESTRICTION ORDER?

As of the time of publication of this alert, there are no federal mandates or executive orders requiring business shutdowns or mandatory quarantines. However, many states, counties, and municipalities are issuing executive orders closing non-essential businesses and limiting gatherings of people.

    a.    State-Level COVID-19 Executive Orders

Each of these state and local mandates exempt “essential businesses” and the specific definition of an essential business varies from state to state. As a general rule, however, “essential businesses” are those that promote public safety, health, and welfare. Here are examples of several of the first state directives.    

California: On March 19, 2020, Governor Newsom issued Executive Order N-33-20 requiring California residents to remain at home unless they are involved in 16 critical infrastructure sectors. These 16 critical infrastructure sectors were designated by the Department of Homeland Security and include the water and wastewater systems sector that is responsible for ensuring the supply of safe drinking water and wastewater treatment and service.  

Illinois: On March 20, 2020, Governor Pritzker issued Executive Order 2020-10 requiring Illinois residents to remain in their homes to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The order specifically exempts “essential government functions”, “essential businesses and operations”, and “essential infrastructure activities.” Essential infrastructure activities include operation and maintenance of utilities, including water, sewer, and gas, and solid waste and recycling collection and removal and essential businesses and operations includes construction related activities.

New York: On March 20, 2020, Governor Cuomo issued an Executive Order (referred to as Pause, standing for Policies Assure Uniform Safety for Everyone), requiring that as of 8 p.m. on March 22, all non-essential businesses must ensure that their workforce works remotely. Exempt “Essential businesses” include essential infrastructure (including utilities and construction); essential services (including trash collection, mail, and shipping services; news media; banks and related financial institutions); sanitation and essential operations of residences or other essential businesses; and vendors that provide essential services or products (including services needed to ensure the continuing operation of government agencies and provide for the health, safety, and welfare of the public).

New Jersey: On March 21, 2020, Governor Murphy issued Executive Order 107 requiring that New Jersey residents remain in their homes and requiring that all “non-essential businesses” close. A previously issued executive order (Executive Order No. 104) defined “essential businesses” to include “grocery/food stores, pharmacies, medical supply stores, gas stations, healthcare facilities and ancillary stores within healthcare facilities.” All gatherings within the state are limited to 50 persons or fewer, except for “normal operations at airports, bus and train stations, medical facilities, office environments, factories, assemblages for the purpose of industrial or manufacturing work, construction sites, mass transit, or the purchase of groceries or consumer goods.”

In addition to these states, many other states have either implemented similar orders (including Connecticut, Delaware, and Louisiana) or likely will do so in the coming weeks. While expressly mentioning critical sectors such as health care, police and fire, and grocery stores, the orders do not squarely address whether environmental field work constitutes “essential businesses” subject to these exemptions. However, environmental field work logically could be included under the categories used to describe “essential business,” particularly because many of the environmental statutes requiring such work expressly state that the work is being ordered or conducted to protect human health and the environment.

    b.    Federal (U.S. EPA) Environmental Agency Guidance

The White House has issued Coronavirus Response Guidelines, “15 Days to Slow the Spread,” including a statement that if you work in one of the 16 “critical infrastructure industries” as defined by the Department of Homeland Security, you have a “special responsibility” to continue to work.

As of this publication, U.S. EPA has not released public guidance on whether ongoing or new site cleanups and/or site investigations would constitute “critical infrastructure industry.” At least to some degree, that determination is likely to be a site-specific, based on the unique circumstances of each site and, as further discussed below, the language of the agency orders or agreements which govern the environmental field work. It is likely that in the coming weeks, U.S. EPA will provide further guidance on assessing whether site cleanup activities constitute “critical infrastructure industry” exempt from the various Restriction Orders. One issue that may need to be resolved in the future relates to potential conflicts in federal and state guidance regarding what constitutes an “essential service.” Such issues could be addressed via federal and state cooperation agreements in the event of possible conflicts between federal and state directives.

    c.    State Environmental Agency Guidance

At least one state environmental regulatory agency has provided guidance directly on this issue. On March 20, 2020, the California State Resources Water Control Board, which generally has jurisdiction over impacted groundwater in California, published a Guidance Document that states:

Please be aware that timely compliance by the regulated community with all Water Board orders and other requirements (including regulations, permits, contractual obligations, primacy delegations, and funding conditions) is generally considered to be an essential function during the COVID-19 response. As a result, the Water Boards consider compliance with board-established orders and other requirements to be within the essential activities, essential governmental functions, or comparable exceptions to shelter-in-place directives provided by local public health officials.   

It is likely that similar guidance will be issued in the coming weeks by other state regulatory agencies.

2.    IF I CANNOT CONTINUE THE WORK UNDER A RESTRICTION ORDER OR OTHERWISE, HOW COULD I PROTECT MY COMPANY’S INTERESTS TO AVOID PENALTIES OR OTHER LIABILITIES?

Those responsible for ongoing environmental field work should carefully evaluate the governing consent decrees, administrative orders, or other agreements with state and federal environmental agencies, and private parties, under which they are performing environmental field work. The agreements may well have force majeure and other clauses addressing delays in the work.

For example, under the current federal model remedial design/remedial action (RD/RA) judicial consent decrees with potentially responsible parties (“PRPs”) under sections 106, 107 and 122 of CERCLA, PRPs have both covenanted not to sue the United States and agreed to indemnify the same for “claims on account of construction delays.” There are additional stipulated penalty provisions. Therefore, companies must act pursuant to the force majeure provisions to avoid these claims and stipulated penalties. Force majeure is defined as “any event arising from causes beyond the control of [PRPs], of any entity controlled by [PRPs], or of [PRPs]’ contractors that delays or prevents the performance of any obligation under this [consent decree] despite [PRPs]’ best efforts to fulfill the obligation.”

Relying on these provisions involves:

  • Notifying “EPA’s Project Coordinator orally or, in his or her absence, EPA’s Alternate Project Coordinator or, in the event both of EPA’s designated representatives are unavailable, the Director of the Waste Management Division” in that specific U.S. EPA Region within a stipulated period of days (the period of days may vary under each consent decree).
  • Providing in writing to U.S. EPA “an explanation and description of the reasons for the delay; the anticipated duration of the delay; all actions taken or to be taken to prevent or minimize the delay; a schedule for implementation of any measures to be taken to prevent or mitigate the delay or the effect of the delay; [the PRP’s] rationale for attributing such delay to a force majeure; and a statement as to whether, in the opinion of [the PRP], such event may cause or contribute to an endangerment to public health or welfare, or the environment” within a stipulated period of days (the period of days likely varies under each consent decree).
  • Providing with the above writing “all available documentation supporting their claim that the delay was attributable to a force majeure.”

U.S. EPA is then to provide notice of its decision, which if U.S. EPA rejects the force majeure claim, the responsible parties must provide notice within 15 days of U.S. EPA’s decision to avail themselves of the model consent decree’s dispute resolution provision. The federal Model Administrative Settlement Agreement and Order on Consent for Removal Actions contains similar obligations and provisions.

It is thus plain that responsible parties conducting environmental field work should be prepared to contact U.S. EPA or state regulators orally as soon as practicable to determine their views on the necessity of the work and if there is disagreement about the same, begin to “paper the file” on the necessary force majeure documentation in the time frames provided in the governing consent decrees, administrative orders, or various other agreements with state and federal environmental agencies.

For sites that are in the early investigation stages, regulators may agree to a temporary pause in site investigations. For sites that are currently undergoing remedial measures, the determination on whether work should continue is again likely to be fact dependent. For example, a site with an ongoing groundwater treatment system that is being operated to protect a drinking water source is likely to be deemed an essential activity. For a site where the remedial measures involve excavating impacted soils that are not immediately affecting groundwater sources, it may be the case that the regulators determine that certain activities are not “essential” and can be temporarily paused or scaled back.

Even if the decision is made to proceed with the work, other circumstances may preclude or significantly impair the ability to do the work. For example, it may be difficult to obtain necessary supplies and/or vendors to perform these services. To the extent that wastes are generated in the course of doing this work, can these wastes be managed and disposed of in a timely manner? These are all issues that should be discussed with the regulators or private parties requiring the work.

3.    IF I CONTINUE THE WORK, HOW CAN I DO IT SAFELY?

Once a decision is made that environmental field work is “essential” and must proceed to at least some degree, special care must be taken to ensure that the work is performed safely given additional risks imposed by COVID-19.  On March 9, 2020, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) issued its Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 that was the subject of a previous client alert.  This OSHA guidance outlines recommended steps that employers should take to protect workers, using OSHA’s “hierarchy of controls” framework for addressing workplace risks (i.e., engineering controls, followed by administrative controls, safe work practices, and PPE.  It is also prudent for all entities at the site to consider what steps they will take if they learn that one of the workers has become exposed to the novel coronavirus or contracted COVID-19. On March 20, 2020, the CDC issued updated “Environmental Cleaning and Disinfection Recommendations.” 

OSHA has long-standing regulations for work at hazardous waste sites under its Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (“HAZWOPER”) standard (in general industry 29 CFR 1910.120 and in construction 29 CFR 1926.65), which establishes health and safety requirements for work at sites, as well as responses to emergencies involving releases of hazardous substances. Many environmental investigation and remediation sites have rigorous site-specific health and safety plans, and many are required to have such plans by a consent decree or other regulatory or contractual obligation. Many environmental contractors have such plans as part of their standard operating procedures. However, given COVID-19, special care should be taken to ensure that PPE that would ordinarily be used to prevent exposure to hazardous substances is not contaminated prior to being utilized in the field.  Moreover, ensuring feasible physical distancing, requiring diligent hygiene methods, and having appropriate cleaning equipment and chemicals in the field are also critical.  All entities with employees at the site should regularly check both the OSHA and CDC website for updated guidance on workplace health and safety best practices. It also is important to ensure that the protocols are being appropriately communicated and followed by all entities (including regulators) at a site; the best protocols and procedures are only as good as their actual implementation by all.

OSHA has reminded the regulated community that if employees contract COVID-19 as a result of performing their work-related duties, the employees who become ill could constitute recordable cases of illness under OSHA’s Injury and Illness Recordkeeping Standard, 29 CFR Part 1904.

Companies and their counsel also should evaluate existing master services agreements that govern the work of their vendors and contractors with a particular eye towards: (i) how indemnification provisions might apply in the event that a vendor’s or contractor’s employee is later determined to be infected with COVID-19 and such a latency period could plausibly extend to such an employee’s work at the company’s site and its employees, and vice versa; and (ii) payment delay provisions should the company or its vendors or contractors become concerned about solvency issues.

We will continue to provide updates on the impacts of COVID-19 on environmental, health and safety issues affecting our clients. Jenner & Block has established a COVID-19 resource center that provides updates on a variety of issues affecting our clients and we would encourage you to visit this resource center for timely updates on COVID-19 related issues.

CATEGORIES: Air, Cercla, Climate Change, Consumer Law and Environment, Hazmat, OSHA, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Steven M. Siros, Gabrielle Sigel, Alexander J. Bandza

March 19, 2020 OSHA Issues Temporary Enforcement Guidance on Healthcare Employers’ Requirements for Fit-Testing of Respirators

Sigel

By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

One of the current Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) regulations on center stage as a result of the health crisis caused by the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 is OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard, 29 CFR § 1910.134 (“the Standard”).  On March 14, 2020, OSHA issued a Temporary Enforcement Guidance, entitled “Healthcare Respiratory Protection Annual Fit-Testing for N95 Filtering Facepieces During the COVID-19 Outbreak” (“Temporary Guidance”).  Although directly applicable only to the healthcare industry, the Temporary Guidance portends what may become the new normal for all industries that require respirator use and that are continuing to operate during the COVID-19 crisis. 

In general, the Standard requires employers to provide respirators at the appropriate level of protection when it is necessary to protect employees from workplace inhalation hazards.  The Standard also requires such employers to have a written program addressing respirator use, and to implement procedures including for start-up and annual medical evaluation and fit-testing, training, and cleaning of respirators.  Through the Temporary Guidance, OSHA Compliance Officers are provided instructions from OSHA headquarters regarding enforcement of the Standard in the healthcare industry in light of the supply shortages of N95 filtering facepiece respirators. 

The Temporary Guidance notes that the CDC recommends that healthcare providers who are providing direct care to patients with known or suspected COVID-19 to, among other things, use personal protective equipment (“PPE”), such as respirators.  In the Temporary Guidance, OSHA recommends that if N95 respirators are not available, healthcare employers should provide a respirator of “equal or higher protection,” e.g. N99 or N100 filtering facepieces, reusable elastomeric respirators, or powered air purifying respirators.  In addition, to conserve resources, OSHA recommends that fit-testing of filtering facepiece respirators continue, but that employers use a qualitative, non-destructive method, rather than a quantitative, destructive method for fit-testing.  The CDC has its own guidelines regarding what healthcare workers should do when they are facing a shortage of N95 respirators.

With respect to enforcement, OSHA directed all offices to “exercise enforcement discretion” concerning the annual fit-testing requirement, 29 CFR § 1910.134(f)(2), if employers take other actions to mitigate risks to employees, including:

  • Make a “good-faith effort” to comply with the Standard.
  • Use only NIOSH-certified respirators [see concerns regarding counterfeit respirators].
  • Perform initial fit-testing for employees using the same model, style, and size of respirator that the employee will actual use.
  • Train employees regarding how to perform a “seal check” each time a respirator is donned.

Other requirements that OSHA is relying on to mitigate risk and avoid non-compliance are listed in the Temporary Guidance.

CATEGORIES: Air, Hazmat, OSHA

PEOPLE: Gabrielle Sigel

March 12, 2020 U.S. OSHA Issues Guidance for Employers Regarding Preparing for COVID-19 Risks

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By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

On March 9, 2020, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued its “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19,” (“Guidance”) compiling best practices and existing regulatory standards for evaluating and preparing for risks to workers from exposure to the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. OSHA urges that “it is important for all employers to plan now for COVID-19.” (p. 3) The Guidance describes: (1) how a COVID-19 outbreak could affect workplaces; (2) steps employers can take to reduce workers’ risk of exposure; (3) classification of jobs into categories of risk and controls to protect workers in each category; and (4) how to protect workers living or traveling outside the U.S.

OSHA acknowledges that “[w]hile there is no specific OSHA standard covering SARS-CoV-2 exposure, some OSHA requirements may apply to preventing occupational exposure to SARS-CoV-2,” specifically, OSHA’s regulations regarding provision of personal protective equipment (“PPE”) [ 29 CFR 1910 Subpart I], respirator use [29 CFR 1910.134], and the all-encompassing General Duty Clause of the OSH Act, which requires employers to provide each worker “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” 29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1). (p.17) OSHA also suggests that the bloodborne pathogen standard [29 CFR 1910.1030] offers a framework for controlling exposures to respiratory secretions that may contain the virus.

In the Guidance, OSHA divides job tasks into exposure levels of “very high, high, medium, and lower risk” and then recommends steps employers should consider taking to protect workers in each risk category, using its “hierarchy of controls” framework for addressing workplace risks, i.e., engineering controls, followed by administrative controls, safe work practices, and PPE. (pp. 18-25) OSHA’s analysis is summarized below:

  • Very High Risk Workers: Workers in the health care and related professions (including autopsy and mortuary workers) performing aerosol-generating procedures on known or suspected COVID-19 patients or handling specimens or body parts from such patients.
    • Engineering Controls: Install and maintain air-handling systems in healthcare facilities; patients with suspected or known COVID-19 should be placed in airborne infection isolation rooms, “if available;” aerosol-generating procedures should occur only in isolation rooms; use Biosafety Level 3 precautions for handling specimens.
    • Administrative Controls: Follow all healthcare facility guidelines and standards for identifying and isolating infected individuals and protecting workers; “consider” offering enhanced medical monitoring of workers; train workers on preventing transmission; ensure psychological and behavioral support for employee stress. Safe
    • Work Practices: Provide emergency responders and others working outside of fixed healthcare facilities with hand rubs containing at least 60% alcohol. PPE: Provide respirators for those working within 6 feet of potential or known infected patients; PPE ensemble including gowns, fluid-resistant coveralls, aprons and other protective clothing; proper disposal of PPE, including training of those involved in disposal.
  • High Risk Workers: Other health care and mortuary workers who are exposed to known or suspected COVID-19 patients, but not those exposed to aerosol-generating procedures.
    • Engineering and administrative controls, safe practices, and PPE: Same as for Very High Risk Workers, adjusted based on somewhat lower risk.
  • Medium Risk Workers: Workers whose job requires frequent and/or close contact within 6 feet of those who may be infected with the virus, but are not known to have contracted COVID-19. “Medium risk” classification applies to those who work with the general public in communities with “ongoing community transmission,” such as in schools and “some high-volume retail settings.”
    • Engineering Controls: Physical barriers, such as sneeze guards, “where feasible.”
    • Administrative Controls: “Consider” offering facemask to ill employees and customers until they can leave the workplace; inform customers of COVID-19 symptoms; “where appropriate,” limit customer and public access to workplace areas; communicate availability of medical resources.
    • PPE: May need combination of gloves, own, face mask, face shield/goggles, depending on work tasks, hazard assessment, and types of exposures; need for respirator would be “rare.”
  • Lower Risk Workers: Workers whose jobs do not require frequent contact with the public and other coworkers.
    • Engineering Controls: None additional.
    • Administrative Controls: Monitor public health communications, including CDC’s website, and work with workers on effective communications.
    • PPE: None additional.

In addition to the steps above, OSHA’s Guidance provides “Steps All Employers Can Take to Reduce Workers’ Risk of Exposure to SARS-CoV-2.” (pp. 7-17) While not requiring employers take these measures, the Guidance states that “[a]s appropriate,” employers should implement “good hygiene and infection control practices”; “explore whether” employers can establish practices including physical and social distancing, and have cleaning equipment and chemicals that are EPA-approved for addressing viruses. (pp. 8-9) OSHA also states that employers should develop policies and procedures for “prompt identification and isolation of sick people, if appropriate.” (p.9) OSHA also encourages employers to “develop, implement and communicate about workplace flexibilities and protections” with the principal goal of allowing sick workers or those with illness in families to stay home. (p.11)

With respect to employers with workers working abroad, the Guidance advises that employers keep abreast of CDC and State Department announcements, tell workers that the State Department will not provide medications or supplies to Americans abroad, and be aware that travel in and out of a foreign country may be limited. (pp. 25-26) (The Guidance was issued before the President announced his ban of travel from Europe on March 11.)

Further and updated information about OSHA’s response and guidance about COVID-19 can be found at https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/. California-OSHA also has published extensive “Guidance on Requirements to Protect Workers from Coronavirus.”

CATEGORIES: Air, Hazmat, OSHA

PEOPLE: Gabrielle Sigel

February 11, 2020 White House Promises to Use “All Available Tools” to Implement Deep Cuts to EPA Funding in Fiscal Year 2021

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By Matthew G. Lawson

Epa On Monday, February 10, 2020, the Trump Administration released its proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2021. The proposal calls for sweeping cuts to a number of federal agencies and departments, including deep cuts to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“USEPA”). If enacted, the proposed budget would grant $6.7 billion in funding to USEPA, a $2.4 billion or 26-percent reduction from the agency’s $9.1 billion budget in 2020. In the budget proposal’s preamble, the Administration promises to “call[] on the Government to reduce wasteful, unnecessary spending, and to fix mismanagement and redundancy across agencies.”

With respect to USEPA’s budget allocation, the proposal promises to “eliminate almost 50 wasteful programs that are outside of EPA’s core mission or duplicative of other efforts, saving taxpayers over $600 million.” Proposed major cuts include the reduction of nearly 50% of the agency’s research budget, including all funding for grants to independent universities and research institutes conducting air, water, and other environmental and health research. Another target for deep cuts is USEPA’s safe drinking water revolving funds. The revolving funds are used to help fund water infrastructure projects undertaken by state or municipal public water providers. Under the proposed budget, the available funds for such projects would be cut from approximately $2.77 billion down to $2 billion.

While the proposal primarily focuses on proposing cuts to USEPA’s fiscal budget, it does contain a few line item requests for additional funding. In particular, the proposal asks for an additional $6 million to carry out USEPA’s Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Action Plan. The additional funding is sought to continue research into the risk posed by PFAS compounds, address current contamination issues, and effectively communicate findings to the public. In addition, the budget requests $16 million into new research to help prevent and respond to the rising growth of harmful algal blooms. 

The budget proposal is not the first time the Trump Administration has sought to implement deep cuts into USEPA’s budget. In fact, the Trump Administration has now proposed nearly identical cuts to the agency’s budget in each of the last three fiscal years. As previously discussed by the Corporate Environmental Lawyer, the Trump Administration first proposed a $2.7 billion budget reduction for USEPA in fiscal year 2018. However, the proposal was rebuffed by congress and the final spending bill ultimately signed by Trump held the agency’s budget at $8.1 billion, even with its 2017 level. The following year, the Trump Administration again proposed cutting the agency’s budget by more than $2 billion, but ultimately agreed to a spending deal that increased the agency’s budget to $8.8 billion. Finally, during fiscal year 2020, the Trump Administration proposed approximately $2.7 billion in cuts to USEPA’s budget. As before, Congress rejected the proposal and ultimately approved a nearly record high budget for USEPA of $9.1 Billion.  Congress’ continued rejection of the spending cuts proposed by the Trump Administration is acknowledged in the Administration’s most recent 2021 budget proposal, which derides Congress for continuing “to reject any efforts to restrain spending” and “greatly contribut[ing] to the continued ballooning of Federal debt and deficits, putting the Nation’s fiscal future at risk.” The proposal promises that the Trump Administration will use “all available tools and levers” to ensure that the spending reductions outlined in the budget are finally implemented.

CATEGORIES: Air, Cercla, Climate Change, Consumer Law and Environment, OSHA, RCRA, Sustainability, TSCA, Water

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

April 2, 2019 Trends in Climate Change Litigation: Part 1

Matthew G. Lawson

Climate Change

By Matthew G. Lawson

The term “climate change litigation” has become a shorthand for a wide range of different legal proceedings associated with addressing the environmental impacts of climate change. Plaintiffs in climate change lawsuits may include individuals, non-governmental organizations, private companies, state or local level governments, and even company shareholders who, through various legal theories, allege that they have been harmed or will suffer future harm as a direct result of the world’s changing climate. The targets of climate change litigation have included individual public and private companies, government bodies, and even entire industry groups. While there appears to be no shortage of plaintiffs, defendants, or legal theories emerging in climate change litigation, one clear trend is that the number of these lawsuits has grown dramatically in recent years. By one count, more than fifty climate change suits have been filed in the United States every year since 2009, with over one hundred suits being filed in both 2016 and 2017.

In light of the growing trend of climate change litigation, Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog is starting a periodic blog update which will discuss the emerging trends and key cases in this litigation arena.  In each update, our blog will focus on a sub-set of climate change cases and discuss recent decisions  on the topic. In Part 1 of this series, we will be discussing Citizen-Initiated Litigation Against National Governments.

Citizen-Initiated Litigation Against National Governments.

Perhaps the most high-profile and well-publicized cases in the climate change litigation arena have been lawsuits brought by private citizens against their own national government. A common objective of these cases is to push governments to implement policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions through legal hooks such as international agreements, international treaties, or constitutional provisions. While the early focal point for these cases has been European countries, citizen-initiated litigation continues to spread across the globe, including the United States.

Several examples of this emerging type of litigation have included:

  • Urgenda Foundation v. The State of the Netherlands (2015): In the first internationally recognized climate change lawsuit asserted against a national government, a Dutch environmental group, the Urgenda Foundation, represented over 900 citizens in a lawsuit alleging that the Dutch government had failed to address the risks of climate change. Ruling in support of the citizen group, the Hague court determined that the Dutch government was required to protect the living environment from the dangers of climate change by reducing CO2 emissions a minimum of 25%—relative to 1990 levels—by the year 2020. This decision was later upheld by the Dutch court of appeals which recognized the plaintiffs’ claims under the European Convention on Human Rights, an international convention to protect human rights in Europe.
  • Friends of the Irish Environment v. Ireland (2018): Following the success of the Urgenda litigation, an Irish advocacy group, Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), filed suit in the Irish High Court in an attempt to compel the government to increase its GHG emissions reduction goals. Following the path laid out in Urgenda, the FIE plaintiffs asserted their claims under the theory that the Irish government was not fulfilling its objectives under the Paris Climate Agreement. This case was argued before the High Court on January 22, 2019, and is currently awaiting a decision.
  • Juliana v. United States, 217 F. Supp. 3d 1224 (2016): Launched by the U.S. advocacy group, Our Children’s Trust, Juliana is a lawsuit filed by 21 young people (ages eight to nineteen) who assert that the United States is denying its youngest citizens their constitutional right to a safe and livable climate. Unlike the cases brought in Ireland or the Netherlands, the plaintiffs in Juliana have not taken the position that the United States is bound to reduce GHG emissions through any form of internal law or agreement. Instead, the plaintiffs’ complaint asserts the legal theory that the United States Constitution provides its citizens a substantive due process right “to a climate system capable of sustaining human life.” In conjunction with this argument, the plaintiffs have asserted a unique application of the centuries-old “Public Trust Doctrine,” arguing that the climate itself is a natural resource that must be held in trust for the people. Juliana has gone through a complex legal history, including multiple attempts at dismissal from both the Obama and now Trump administrations. Currently, the case is being briefed in front of the 9th Circuit on interlocutory appeal.

 

CATEGORIES: Air, Cercla, Climate Change, Consumer Law and Environment, FIFRA, Greenhouse Gas, Hazmat, OSHA, RCRA, Real Estate and Environment, Sustainability, Toxic Tort, TSCA, Water

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

April 2, 2019 Trends in Climate Change Litigation: Part 1

Headshot

Climate Change

By Matthew G. Lawson

The term “climate change litigation” has become a shorthand for a wide range of different legal proceedings associated with addressing the environmental impacts of climate change. Plaintiffs in climate change lawsuits may include individuals, non-governmental organizations, private companies, state or local level governments, and even company shareholders who, through various legal theories, allege that they have been harmed or will suffer future harm as a direct result of the world’s changing climate. The targets of climate change litigation have included individual public and private companies, government bodies, and even entire industry groups. While there appears to be no shortage of plaintiffs, defendants, or legal theories emerging in climate change litigation, one clear trend is that the number of these lawsuits has grown dramatically in recent years. By one count, more than fifty climate change suits have been filed in the United States every year since 2009, with over one hundred suits being filed in both 2016 and 2017.

In light of the growing trend of climate change litigation, Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog is starting a periodic blog update which will discuss the emerging trends and key cases in this litigation arena.  In each update, our blog will focus on a sub-set of climate change cases and discuss recent decisions  on the topic. In Part 1 of this series, we will be discussing Citizen-Initiated Litigation Against National Governments.

Citizen-Initiated Litigation Against National Governments.

Perhaps the most high-profile and well-publicized cases in the climate change litigation arena have been lawsuits brought by private citizens against their own national government. A common objective of these cases is to push governments to implement policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions through legal hooks such as international agreements, international treaties, or constitutional provisions. While the early focal point for these cases has been European countries, citizen-initiated litigation continues to spread across the globe, including the United States.

Several examples of this emerging type of litigation have included:

  • Urgenda Foundation v. The State of the Netherlands (2015): In the first internationally recognized climate change lawsuit asserted against a national government, a Dutch environmental group, the Urgenda Foundation, represented over 900 citizens in a lawsuit alleging that the Dutch government had failed to address the risks of climate change. Ruling in support of the citizen group, the Hague court determined that the Dutch government was required to protect the living environment from the dangers of climate change by reducing CO2 emissions a minimum of 25%—relative to 1990 levels—by the year 2020. This decision was later upheld by the Dutch court of appeals which recognized the plaintiffs’ claims under the European Convention on Human Rights, an international convention to protect human rights in Europe.
  • Friends of the Irish Environment v. Ireland (2018): Following the success of the Urgenda litigation, an Irish advocacy group, Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), filed suit in the Irish High Court in an attempt to compel the government to increase its GHG emissions reduction goals. Following the path laid out in Urgenda, the FIE plaintiffs asserted their claims under the theory that the Irish government was not fulfilling its objectives under the Paris Climate Agreement. This case was argued before the High Court on January 22, 2019, and is currently awaiting a decision.
  • Juliana v. United States, 217 F. Supp. 3d 1224 (2016): Launched by the U.S. advocacy group, Our Children’s Trust, Juliana is a lawsuit filed by 21 young people (ages eight to nineteen) who assert that the United States is denying its youngest citizens their constitutional right to a safe and livable climate. Unlike the cases brought in Ireland or the Netherlands, the plaintiffs in Juliana have not taken the position that the United States is bound to reduce GHG emissions through any form of internal law or agreement. Instead, the plaintiffs’ complaint asserts the legal theory that the United States Constitution provides its citizens a substantive due process right “to a climate system capable of sustaining human life.” In conjunction with this argument, the plaintiffs have asserted a unique application of the centuries-old “Public Trust Doctrine,” arguing that the climate itself is a natural resource that must be held in trust for the people. Juliana has gone through a complex legal history, including multiple attempts at dismissal from both the Obama and now Trump administrations. Currently, the case is being briefed in front of the 9th Circuit on interlocutory appeal.

 

CATEGORIES: Air, Cercla, Climate Change, Consumer Law and Environment, FIFRA, Greenhouse Gas, Hazmat, OSHA, RCRA, Real Estate and Environment, Sustainability, Toxic Tort, TSCA, Water

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

March 12, 2019 EPA Can’t Dodge Gold King Mine Liability

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By Steven M. Siros

Gold King Mine Spill

U.S. EPA continues to be on the hook for damages associated with the Gold King Mine located in San Juan County, Colorado. Several years ago, a contractor working on behalf of U.S. EPA to address environmental impacts associated with a closed gold mine, destroyed a plug holding water trapped inside of the mine, causing the release of approximately three million gallons of mine waste water into Cement Creek, which was a tributary of the Animas River. Although U.S. EPA took responsibility for the incident, it has refused to pay damages incurred as a result of he release, leading to lawsuits being filed by a variety of plaintiffs, including the states of Utah and New Mexico, the Navajo Nation, and affected individuals. Plaintiffs asserted a variety of claims, including claims under CERCLA, RCRA, CWA, and the Federal Tort Claims Act (FCTA).  U.S. EPA filed a motion to dismiss, arguing among other things, that it was entitled to sovereign immunity for damages resulting from an ongoing cleanup effort. 

On February 28, 2019, the federal district court in New Mexico rejected U.S. EPA’s claim that it was protected from CERCLA liability on sovereign immunity grounds, noting that at least three circuit courts have found that U.S. EPA can face liability under CERCLA where U. S. EPA’s actions in remediating a site are alleged to have caused releases of hazardous wastes. The court also found that plaintiffs’ allegations (which included Utah and New Mexico, as well as the Navajo Nation and individuals), if proven, would demonstrate U.S. EPA’s liability as an “arranger,” “operator,” and “transporter” of hazardous substances. Specifically, Plaintiffs stated claims for arranger liability because they "allege that EPA took intentional steps to dispose of a hazardous substance.” With respect to operator liability, the court noted that Plaintiffs “allege that EPA managed, directed, or conducted operations specifically related to the pollution, that is, operations having to do with the leakage or disposal of hazardous waste.” Finally, regarding transporter liability, Plaintiffs “allege that EPA took steps to drain the mine and treat the water at the site.”

With respect to the RCRA, CWA, and FCTA claims, the court concluded that there were disputed issues of fact that precluded the court from being able to grant dismissal of those claims. We will continue to provide updates on this proceeding.

CATEGORIES: Cercla, Climate Change, OSHA, RCRA, Sustainability, Water

PEOPLE: Steven R. Englund, Steven M. Siros

March 12, 2019 EPA Can’t Dodge Gold King Mine Liability

Linkedin_Steven_Siros_3130

 

By Steven M. Siros

Gold King Mine Spill

U.S. EPA continues to be on the hook for damages associated with the Gold King Mine located in San Juan County, Colorado. Several years ago, a contractor working on behalf of U.S. EPA to address environmental impacts associated with a closed gold mine, destroyed a plug holding water trapped inside of the mine, causing the release of approximately three million gallons of mine waste water into Cement Creek, which was a tributary of the Animas River. Although U.S. EPA took responsibility for the incident, it has refused to pay damages incurred as a result of he release, leading to lawsuits being filed by a variety of plaintiffs, including the states of Utah and New Mexico, the Navajo Nation, and affected individuals. Plaintiffs asserted a variety of claims, including claims under CERCLA, RCRA, CWA, and the Federal Tort Claims Act (FCTA).  U.S. EPA filed a motion to dismiss, arguing among other things, that it was entitled to sovereign immunity for damages resulting from an ongoing cleanup effort. 

On February 28, 2019, the federal district court in New Mexico rejected U.S. EPA’s claim that it was protected from CERCLA liability on sovereign immunity grounds, noting that at least three circuit courts have found that U.S. EPA can face liability under CERCLA where U. S. EPA’s actions in remediating a site are alleged to have caused releases of hazardous wastes. The court also found that plaintiffs’ allegations (which included Utah and New Mexico, as well as the Navajo Nation and individuals), if proven, would demonstrate U.S. EPA’s liability as an “arranger,” “operator,” and “transporter” of hazardous substances. Specifically, Plaintiffs stated claims for arranger liability because they "allege that EPA took intentional steps to dispose of a hazardous substance.” With respect to operator liability, the court noted that Plaintiffs “allege that EPA managed, directed, or conducted operations specifically related to the pollution, that is, operations having to do with the leakage or disposal of hazardous waste.” Finally, regarding transporter liability, Plaintiffs “allege that EPA took steps to drain the mine and treat the water at the site.”

With respect to the RCRA, CWA, and FCTA claims, the court concluded that there were disputed issues of fact that precluded the court from being able to grant dismissal of those claims. We will continue to provide updates on this proceeding.

CATEGORIES: Cercla, Climate Change, OSHA, RCRA, Sustainability, Water

PEOPLE: Steven R. Englund, Steven M. Siros

March 4, 2019 OSHRC Rules No General Duty Clause Hazard Or Feasible Abatement For Heat Exposure

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By Gabrielle Sigel

In a 2-1 decision on February 28, 2019, the full Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (“OSHRC”) vacated the U.S. Secretary of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (“OSHA”) citation charging a roofing contractor with a “general duty clause” violation for exposing employees “to the hazard of excessive heat from working on a commercial roof in the direct sun” and separately vacated a citation for failure to train employees regarding heat-related risks.  Sec’y of Labor v. A.H. Sturgill Roofing, Inc., OSHRC Docket No. 13-0224.  OSHA had issued the citations following the physical collapse and subsequent death of a temporary worker on the first day of his work for the roofing company.

Different from a violation based on an OSHA regulation, a general duty clause violation alleges that the employer has violated the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act’s provision stating:  “Each employer … shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”  29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1).

In Sturgill, OSHRC ruled that two of the requirements of a general duty clause violation—the existence of a hazard and a feasible means of abatement—had not been proven by the Secretary of Labor.  Specifically, OSHRC ruled that, “upon weighing the evidence …, the Secretary has not established the existence of a hazard likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”  (Op. at 4.)  OSHRC’s majority rejected OSHA’s reliance on a National Weather Service heat index chart; the Secretary’s expert’s testimony, by a physician who formerly had served as OSHA’s medical officer, that worksite conditions were hazardous; and testimony of the coroner that the employee’s death was due to complications from heat stroke.  With respect to whether the circumstances of an individual employee’s death can be evidence of the existence of a hazard, the majority noted that the employer here did not have actual or constructive knowledge of the employee’s pre-existing conditions that would have made the new temporary employee susceptible to illness.  OSHRC found that given “the constraints that the [Americans with Disabilities Act] and the [Age Discrimination in Employment Act] impose” on employers’ hiring inquiries, the employer here could not have asked more to inquire about the new employee’s physical condition.  (Op. at 13.)  Moreover, OSHRC’s majority found that proof of the “realistic possibility” of an injury cannot be based on whether an employer had knowledge of the “hidden characteristics of an ‘eggshell employee.’”  (Op. at 12, fn. 14.)  Thus, OSHRC ruled that the Secretary had not proven that an excessive heat hazard was present.

Although not necessary to do so after having found no hazard at the worksite, the OSHRC majority also considered whether OSHA had demonstrated the feasibility and effectiveness of an abatement measure that would have materially reduced the incidence of a hazard (Op. 15-19; 34-48), which is another legal element for a valid general duty clause claim.  The dissenting Commissioner Attwood found that the Secretary needed only to prove that the employer had not established an effective heat illness prevention program.  The OSHRC majority disagreed and found that here, based on the Secretary’s litigation position, the employer had five alternative methods to secure abatement and because the employer proved that it had adequately implemented three of those measures, the Secretary could not prove that the employer had not abated any heat illness hazard.  Thus, based on failure to prove two elements of a general duty clause violation—hazard existence and failure to abate—the OSHA citation was vacated.

Because there was no hazard present, and because the Secretary did not show that “a reasonably prudent employer” would have given training different than what Sturgill had provided, the failure to train violation, which was based on an OSHA regulation, also was vacated.  (Op. at 19-22.)  In doing so, OSHRC rejected the argument that the employer’s training must have been insufficient because the supervisor was not aware of the employee’s distress until he collapsed.  (Op. at 22, fn. 22.)

Perhaps more important than this decision based on the Sturgill evidence are the OSHRC majority’s statements in footnotes and Chairman MacDougall’s separate concurrence regarding the general duty clause and its use by OSHA.  Chairman MacDougall and Commissioner Sullivan, both Trump Administration appointees, questioned the use of the general duty clause as an enforcement mechanism.  These two Commissioners footnoted that:

While practical considerations may have lead [sic] OSHA over the years, to rely on the general duty clause in lieu of setting standards, the provisions seems to have increasingly become more of a “gotcha” and “catch all” for the agency to utilize, which as a practical matter often leaves employers confused as to what is required of them.

(Op. at 8, fn. 9.)  The majority noted with apparent approval that California, unlike federal OSHA, had adopted a heat illness prevention regulation in 2006.  In her separate concurrence, Chairman MacDougall stated that the OSHA citation in the Sturgill case “construe[d] the general duty clause to cover work situations in ways that Congress never intended and to unreasonably stretch longstanding Commission precedent by applying the provision to broadly-defined risks inherent in the work being performed.”  (Op. at 23, MacDougall concurring.)  The Chairman then cited to two other of her recent decisions questioning the use of the clause, as well as an OSHRC decision from 1986.  Other discussions in the majority’s footnotes and concurrences, including comments on their colleague’s dissent, give an indication of the OSHRC’s future rulings on general duty clause violations, especially once Commissioner Attwood’s term expires in April 2019 and likely a third Trump-appointed Commissioner will join OSHRC.

In sum, the Sturgill case is a warning that over the next several years OSHA likely will find it more difficult to use a general duty clause violation as an enforcement tool given OSHRC’s strong message of disapproval for its use for anything other than as a “stopgap measure to protect employees until standards could be adopted.”  (Op. at 8, fn. 9, citations omitted.)  Employers who are issued a citation based on a general duty clause violation may find several bases for challenging such a citation based on a close study of OSHRC’s Sturgill decision.

CATEGORIES: OSHA

PEOPLE: Gabrielle Sigel

March 4, 2019 OSHRC Rules No General Duty Clause Hazard Or Feasible Abatement For Heat Exposure

Sigel

 

 

By Gabrielle Sigel

In a 2-1 decision on February 28, 2019, the full Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (“OSHRC”) vacated the U.S. Secretary of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (“OSHA”) citation charging a roofing contractor with a “general duty clause” violation for exposing employees “to the hazard of excessive heat from working on a commercial roof in the direct sun” and separately vacated a citation for failure to train employees regarding heat-related risks.  Sec’y of Labor v. A.H. Sturgill Roofing, Inc., OSHRC Docket No. 13-0224.  OSHA had issued the citations following the physical collapse and subsequent death of a temporary worker on the first day of his work for the roofing company.

Different from a violation based on an OSHA regulation, a general duty clause violation alleges that the employer has violated the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act’s provision stating:  “Each employer … shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”  29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1).

In Sturgill, OSHRC ruled that two of the requirements of a general duty clause violation—the existence of a hazard and a feasible means of abatement—had not been proven by the Secretary of Labor.  Specifically, OSHRC ruled that, “upon weighing the evidence …, the Secretary has not established the existence of a hazard likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”  (Op. at 4.)  OSHRC’s majority rejected OSHA’s reliance on a National Weather Service heat index chart; the Secretary’s expert’s testimony, by a physician who formerly had served as OSHA’s medical officer, that worksite conditions were hazardous; and testimony of the coroner that the employee’s death was due to complications from heat stroke.  With respect to whether the circumstances of an individual employee’s death can be evidence of the existence of a hazard, the majority noted that the employer here did not have actual or constructive knowledge of the employee’s pre-existing conditions that would have made the new temporary employee susceptible to illness.  OSHRC found that given “the constraints that the [Americans with Disabilities Act] and the [Age Discrimination in Employment Act] impose” on employers’ hiring inquiries, the employer here could not have asked more to inquire about the new employee’s physical condition.  (Op. at 13.)  Moreover, OSHRC’s majority found that proof of the “realistic possibility” of an injury cannot be based on whether an employer had knowledge of the “hidden characteristics of an ‘eggshell employee.’”  (Op. at 12, fn. 14.)  Thus, OSHRC ruled that the Secretary had not proven that an excessive heat hazard was present.

Although not necessary to do so after having found no hazard at the worksite, the OSHRC majority also considered whether OSHA had demonstrated the feasibility and effectiveness of an abatement measure that would have materially reduced the incidence of a hazard (Op. 15-19; 34-48), which is another legal element for a valid general duty clause claim.  The dissenting Commissioner Attwood found that the Secretary needed only to prove that the employer had not established an effective heat illness prevention program.  The OSHRC majority disagreed and found that here, based on the Secretary’s litigation position, the employer had five alternative methods to secure abatement and because the employer proved that it had adequately implemented three of those measures, the Secretary could not prove that the employer had not abated any heat illness hazard.  Thus, based on failure to prove two elements of a general duty clause violation—hazard existence and failure to abate—the OSHA citation was vacated.

Because there was no hazard present, and because the Secretary did not show that “a reasonably prudent employer” would have given training different than what Sturgill had provided, the failure to train violation, which was based on an OSHA regulation, also was vacated.  (Op. at 19-22.)  In doing so, OSHRC rejected the argument that the employer’s training must have been insufficient because the supervisor was not aware of the employee’s distress until he collapsed.  (Op. at 22, fn. 22.)

Perhaps more important than this decision based on the Sturgill evidence are the OSHRC majority’s statements in footnotes and Chairman MacDougall’s separate concurrence regarding the general duty clause and its use by OSHA.  Chairman MacDougall and Commissioner Sullivan, both Trump Administration appointees, questioned the use of the general duty clause as an enforcement mechanism.  These two Commissioners footnoted that:

While practical considerations may have lead [sic] OSHA over the years, to rely on the general duty clause in lieu of setting standards, the provisions seems to have increasingly become more of a “gotcha” and “catch all” for the agency to utilize, which as a practical matter often leaves employers confused as to what is required of them.

(Op. at 8, fn. 9.)  The majority noted with apparent approval that California, unlike federal OSHA, had adopted a heat illness prevention regulation in 2006.  In her separate concurrence, Chairman MacDougall stated that the OSHA citation in the Sturgill case “construe[d] the general duty clause to cover work situations in ways that Congress never intended and to unreasonably stretch longstanding Commission precedent by applying the provision to broadly-defined risks inherent in the work being performed.”  (Op. at 23, MacDougall concurring.)  The Chairman then cited to two other of her recent decisions questioning the use of the clause, as well as an OSHRC decision from 1986.  Other discussions in the majority’s footnotes and concurrences, including comments on their colleague’s dissent, give an indication of the OSHRC’s future rulings on general duty clause violations, especially once Commissioner Attwood’s term expires in April 2019 and likely a third Trump-appointed Commissioner will join OSHRC.

In sum, the Sturgill case is a warning that over the next several years OSHA likely will find it more difficult to use a general duty clause violation as an enforcement tool given OSHRC’s strong message of disapproval for its use for anything other than as a “stopgap measure to protect employees until standards could be adopted.”  (Op. at 8, fn. 9, citations omitted.)  Employers who are issued a citation based on a general duty clause violation may find several bases for challenging such a citation based on a close study of OSHRC’s Sturgill decision.

CATEGORIES: OSHA

PEOPLE: Gabrielle Sigel

February 1, 2019 OSHA Rescinds Electronic Submission of Injury/Illness Logs and Incident Reports and Raises Penalties

Sigel

By Gabrielle Sigel

OSHAOn January 25, 2019, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a Final Rule eliminating the requirement that certain employers electronically submit to OSHA information from their annual OSHA 300 log of workplace injuries and illnesses and their OSHA 301 incident reports, which are required to be created after each logged injury and illness. OSHA also announced that, pursuant to annual escalating requirements, penalties for OSHA violations in 2019 would increase to a maximum of $132,598 per willful or repeat violation and a maximum of $13,260 for all other types of violations.

Pursuant to a regulation issued in the final year of the Obama Administration, employers of establishments with 250 or more employees were to be required to submit information from their 300 logs and 301 reports annually to OSHA through an electronic portal. However, the portal was never established during the Obama or Trump Administrations, and the submission obligation was repeatedly suspended until, through the Final Rule, the electronic submission requirement was rescinded entirely.

OSHA described the Final Rule rescinding the submission requirement as primarily driven to “protect worker privacy,” because the OSHA 300 logs and 301 reports contain identifying information which “might be publicly disclosed” under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests or otherwise. In the Final Rule’s preamble, OSHA stressed that its position is that data electronically submitted to OSHA regarding injuries and illnesses are exempt from FOIA public disclosure, both to protect OSHA’s enforcement efforts and to protect employees’ privacy. OSHA stated, however, that despite its position, it is concerned that “it still could be required by a court to release the data,” if it had not rescinded the broader submission requirements. OSHA also expressed concern that, if information from the 300 logs and 301 reports had been electronically collected pursuant to the regulation as issued in 2016, there were increased risks of cyber-security issues involved in protecting sensitive information. OSHA also stated that by rescinding the electronic submission requirement, OSHA can “focus its resources on initiatives that its past experience has shown to be useful … rather than on collecting and processing information from Forms 300 and 301 with uncertain value for OSHA enforcement and compliance assistance.”

Employers of establishments with 250 or more employees, or with 20-249 employees in designated high-hazard industries, remain obligated to annually, electronically submit information from OSHA Form 300A, which summarizes information from the annual OSHA 300 log and 301 reports. The OSHA Summary Form 300A for 2018 injuries and illnesses must be physically posted at each establishment by February 1, 2019, and submitted electronically to OSHA by March 2, 2019. The Form 300A electronic submission information also has been amended to require employers to include their Employer Identification Number (EIN). The requirement to electronically submit the 300A Summary and EIN applies nationwide, including to employers in the 28 State Plan States.

The January 25, 2019 Final Rule does not change the obligation of employers in most industries (unless specifically exempted) to maintain OSHA 300 logs and 301 reports at their establishments, for inspection by OSHA, employees, and their representatives. In addition, all employers continue to be required to report to OSHA, within prescribed time periods, when an employee is killed on the job or suffers a work-related hospitalization, amputation, or loss of an eye.  State requirements regarding injury reporting may be more stringent than those imposed by federal OSHA.

CATEGORIES: OSHA

PEOPLE: Gabrielle Sigel

February 1, 2019 OSHA Rescinds Electronic Submission of Injury/Illness Logs and Incident Reports and Raises Penalties

Sigel

By Gabrielle Sigel

OSHAOn January 25, 2019, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a Final Rule eliminating the requirement that certain employers electronically submit to OSHA information from their annual OSHA 300 log of workplace injuries and illnesses and their OSHA 301 incident reports, which are required to be created after each logged injury and illness. OSHA also announced that, pursuant to annual escalating requirements, penalties for OSHA violations in 2019 would increase to a maximum of $132,598 per willful or repeat violation and a maximum of $13,260 for all other types of violations.

Pursuant to a regulation issued in the final year of the Obama Administration, employers of establishments with 250 or more employees were to be required to submit information from their 300 logs and 301 reports annually to OSHA through an electronic portal. However, the portal was never established during the Obama or Trump Administrations, and the submission obligation was repeatedly suspended until, through the Final Rule, the electronic submission requirement was rescinded entirely.

OSHA described the Final Rule rescinding the submission requirement as primarily driven to “protect worker privacy,” because the OSHA 300 logs and 301 reports contain identifying information which “might be publicly disclosed” under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests or otherwise. In the Final Rule’s preamble, OSHA stressed that its position is that data electronically submitted to OSHA regarding injuries and illnesses are exempt from FOIA public disclosure, both to protect OSHA’s enforcement efforts and to protect employees’ privacy. OSHA stated, however, that despite its position, it is concerned that “it still could be required by a court to release the data,” if it had not rescinded the broader submission requirements. OSHA also expressed concern that, if information from the 300 logs and 301 reports had been electronically collected pursuant to the regulation as issued in 2016, there were increased risks of cyber-security issues involved in protecting sensitive information. OSHA also stated that by rescinding the electronic submission requirement, OSHA can “focus its resources on initiatives that its past experience has shown to be useful … rather than on collecting and processing information from Forms 300 and 301 with uncertain value for OSHA enforcement and compliance assistance.”

Employers of establishments with 250 or more employees, or with 20-249 employees in designated high-hazard industries, remain obligated to annually, electronically submit information from OSHA Form 300A, which summarizes information from the annual OSHA 300 log and 301 reports. The OSHA Summary Form 300A for 2018 injuries and illnesses must be physically posted at each establishment by February 1, 2019, and submitted electronically to OSHA by March 2, 2019. The Form 300A electronic submission information also has been amended to require employers to include their Employer Identification Number (EIN). The requirement to electronically submit the 300A Summary and EIN applies nationwide, including to employers in the 28 State Plan States.

The January 25, 2019 Final Rule does not change the obligation of employers in most industries (unless specifically exempted) to maintain OSHA 300 logs and 301 reports at their establishments, for inspection by OSHA, employees, and their representatives. In addition, all employers continue to be required to report to OSHA, within prescribed time periods, when an employee is killed on the job or suffers a work-related hospitalization, amputation, or loss of an eye.  State requirements regarding injury reporting may be more stringent than those imposed by federal OSHA.

CATEGORIES: OSHA

PEOPLE: Gabrielle Sigel

December 17, 2018 New OSHA Enforcement Policy Under General Duty Clause for Worksite Exposure to Air Contaminants

 By Gabrielle Sigel

OSHA’s Directorate of Enforcement Programs recently issued an enforcement memorandum to all OSHA Regional Administrators providing a new “Enforcement Policy for Respiratory Hazards Not Covered by OSHA Permissible Exposure Limits” (“Enforcement Policy”). OSHA’s 2003 policy on the same topic is now superseded and archived.

The Enforcement Policy explains how and when OSHA will cite an employer for respiratory hazards from an air contaminant under the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause (“GDC”). The GDC is the statutory requirement that an employer “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”  29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1).  By regulation, OSHA has stated that “An employer who is in compliance with any standard in this part shall be deemed to be in compliance with the requirement of section 5(a)(1) of the Act, but only to the extent of the condition, practice, means, method, operation, or process covered by the standard.” 29 CFR 1910.5(f).  There is an open question as to whether and when an employer is in violation of the law if either (a) OSHA has not set a regulatory exposure limit for a particular chemical; or (b) exposures are below OSHA’s regulatory Permissible Exposure Limit (“PEL”), but above another organization’s recommended occupational exposure limit (“OEL”) for the same chemical.  An OEL can be issued by, for example, an industry group, U.S. EPA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists.

OSHA’s new Enforcement Policy states that a GDC violation for airborne chemical exposures cannot be alleged unless OSHA can meet the 4-element standard of proof imposed by the courts for any GDC violation:

  1. The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees of that employer were exposed;
  2. The hazard was recognized;
  3. The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and,
  4. There was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard.

The Enforcement Policy provides that exceeding an OEL is not sufficient evidence on its own to support a GDC citation; all four of the above GDC proof elements must be met. However, even if all four elements cannot be proven, OSHA still can issue a Hazard Alert Letter (“HAL”) if exposures are above an OEL.  The Enforcement Policy includes a sample HAL. 

The Enforcement Policy also provides examples of the evidence that OSHA needs to prove a GDC violation for airborne exposures above an OEL. With respect to the first element—that employees were exposed—OSHA can rely on air sampling and other workplace-based evidence, including witness statements.  However, in contrast to many OSHA requirements when there is a regulatory PEL, in GDC cases, OSHA will consider whether the exposed employee is wearing respiratory protection.  Unlike the 2003 version of the policy, the 2018 Enforcement Policy specifically states that “if the exposed employees were wearing appropriate respiratory protection with no deficiencies in the respirator program, then the likelihood that OSHA could establish a respiratory hazard covered by the general duty clause would be low.”  However, OSHA does not preclude a GDC citation if respirators are used; the Enforcement Policy provides the exception for a respirator program only if that program has “no deficiencies.”

With respect to element #2—hazard recognition—the Enforcement Policy states that this element is met if: (a) there is direct evidence of employer knowledge; or (b) if the employer should have known of the hazard. Direct evidence can include prior receipt of a HAL or information regarding the hazard in a Safety Data Sheet prepared by a chemical’s manufacturer.  Indirect evidence can include an OEL issued by an industry association, professional organization, or a non-OSHA government agency.  With respect to GDC proof elements #3 and #4, OSHA states it likely will be required to present expert testimony to prove its case.  However, that expert can rely on published studies and need not necessarily conduct a new study of the dangers of the hazard at that particular worksite. 

The Enforcement Policy does not expressly address whether OSHA will pursue GDC violations for chemicals for which OSHA has issued a PEL. As written, the new Policy does not prohibit a GDC citation in those circumstances.  The Enforcement Policy states that it applies when an air contaminant “is not covered” by an OSHA PEL, and does not include language restricting the policy to “those cases where an OSHA PEL has not been issued,” as the old version of the policy had stated.  (Emphases added.)  In addition, the new Policy refers Regional Administrators to the Field Operations Manual (“FOM”) for further guidance in preparing a GDC citation.  The current FOM expressly states that a GDC citation may be issued when there are exposures above an OEL but below an OSHA PEL.  FOM (8/02/2016) § III.D.2, Example 4‑25.

Therefore, under the Enforcement Policy, OSHA may assert that even employers with worksite air contaminant exposures below an OSHA PEL, as well as those using chemicals that do not have an issued OSHA PEL, are subject to a GDC citation, if there are unprotected worksite exposures above a recognized OEL.

CATEGORIES: Air, OSHA, Toxic Tort

PEOPLE: Gabrielle Sigel

December 17, 2018 New OSHA Enforcement Policy Under General Duty Clause for Worksite Exposure to Air Contaminants

 By Gabrielle Sigel

OSHA’s Directorate of Enforcement Programs recently issued an enforcement memorandum to all OSHA Regional Administrators providing a new “Enforcement Policy for Respiratory Hazards Not Covered by OSHA Permissible Exposure Limits” (“Enforcement Policy”). OSHA’s 2003 policy on the same topic is now superseded and archived.

The Enforcement Policy explains how and when OSHA will cite an employer for respiratory hazards from an air contaminant under the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause (“GDC”). The GDC is the statutory requirement that an employer “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”  29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1).  By regulation, OSHA has stated that “An employer who is in compliance with any standard in this part shall be deemed to be in compliance with the requirement of section 5(a)(1) of the Act, but only to the extent of the condition, practice, means, method, operation, or process covered by the standard.” 29 CFR 1910.5(f).  There is an open question as to whether and when an employer is in violation of the law if either (a) OSHA has not set a regulatory exposure limit for a particular chemical; or (b) exposures are below OSHA’s regulatory Permissible Exposure Limit (“PEL”), but above another organization’s recommended occupational exposure limit (“OEL”) for the same chemical.  An OEL can be issued by, for example, an industry group, U.S. EPA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists.

OSHA’s new Enforcement Policy states that a GDC violation for airborne chemical exposures cannot be alleged unless OSHA can meet the 4-element standard of proof imposed by the courts for any GDC violation:

  1. The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees of that employer were exposed;
  2. The hazard was recognized;
  3. The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and,
  4. There was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard.

The Enforcement Policy provides that exceeding an OEL is not sufficient evidence on its own to support a GDC citation; all four of the above GDC proof elements must be met. However, even if all four elements cannot be proven, OSHA still can issue a Hazard Alert Letter (“HAL”) if exposures are above an OEL.  The Enforcement Policy includes a sample HAL. 

The Enforcement Policy also provides examples of the evidence that OSHA needs to prove a GDC violation for airborne exposures above an OEL. With respect to the first element—that employees were exposed—OSHA can rely on air sampling and other workplace-based evidence, including witness statements.  However, in contrast to many OSHA requirements when there is a regulatory PEL, in GDC cases, OSHA will consider whether the exposed employee is wearing respiratory protection.  Unlike the 2003 version of the policy, the 2018 Enforcement Policy specifically states that “if the exposed employees were wearing appropriate respiratory protection with no deficiencies in the respirator program, then the likelihood that OSHA could establish a respiratory hazard covered by the general duty clause would be low.”  However, OSHA does not preclude a GDC citation if respirators are used; the Enforcement Policy provides the exception for a respirator program only if that program has “no deficiencies.”

With respect to element #2—hazard recognition—the Enforcement Policy states that this element is met if: (a) there is direct evidence of employer knowledge; or (b) if the employer should have known of the hazard. Direct evidence can include prior receipt of a HAL or information regarding the hazard in a Safety Data Sheet prepared by a chemical’s manufacturer.  Indirect evidence can include an OEL issued by an industry association, professional organization, or a non-OSHA government agency.  With respect to GDC proof elements #3 and #4, OSHA states it likely will be required to present expert testimony to prove its case.  However, that expert can rely on published studies and need not necessarily conduct a new study of the dangers of the hazard at that particular worksite. 

The Enforcement Policy does not expressly address whether OSHA will pursue GDC violations for chemicals for which OSHA has issued a PEL. As written, the new Policy does not prohibit a GDC citation in those circumstances.  The Enforcement Policy states that it applies when an air contaminant “is not covered” by an OSHA PEL, and does not include language restricting the policy to “those cases where an OSHA PEL has not been issued,” as the old version of the policy had stated.  (Emphases added.)  In addition, the new Policy refers Regional Administrators to the Field Operations Manual (“FOM”) for further guidance in preparing a GDC citation.  The current FOM expressly states that a GDC citation may be issued when there are exposures above an OEL but below an OSHA PEL.  FOM (8/02/2016) § III.D.2, Example 4‑25.

Therefore, under the Enforcement Policy, OSHA may assert that even employers with worksite air contaminant exposures below an OSHA PEL, as well as those using chemicals that do not have an issued OSHA PEL, are subject to a GDC citation, if there are unprotected worksite exposures above a recognized OEL.

CATEGORIES: Air, OSHA, Toxic Tort

PEOPLE: Gabrielle Sigel