If you want to know what enforcement officials at OSHA are concerned about, you don’t have to read their minds. The agency uses a number of public meetings and conferences to lay out its priorities. One of those opportunities came last month at an American Bar Association conference when Tom Galassi, OSHA’s Director of Enforcement Programs (DEP) spoke. He spelled out the three key areas that his group is focusing on (as reported in the Seafarth and Shaw Law Firm’s Environmental Newsletter):
Heat: Always a biggie with the oil and gas industry, especially with summer coming. According to the presentation, OSHA did 266 inspections last year on heat-related issues, including 34 following fatalities.
Ergonomics: The top area for inspections here are nursing homes and other health care facilities. All told, OSHA did 240 inspections involving ergonomics last year, about average for the agency.
Workplace Violence: Mr. Galassi says the agency has 29 open workplace violence investigations right now and has issued three citations this year. He urged night retail businesses, health care facilities, and social services to make sure they are protecting their workers adequately.
What do heat, ergonomics and workplace violence have in common? There are no regulations directly covering any of those hazards. In each case, OSHA has invoked the General Duty Clause Section (5(a)(1) of the OSH Act) to say that employers have a legal obligation to provide a workplace free of “recognized” hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
What does this mean to companies? First, the top enforcer from OSHA just told you his agency is focused on heat, ergonomics and workplace violence. You would be well advised to make sure your safety system addresses these areas. Second, don’t assume that the only hazards you need to address are spelled out in regulations. The General Duty Clause has turned into one of, if not the, chief enforcement tool employed by OSHA.