The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has rescinded an Obama-era rule that allowed union safety experts to serve as employee representatives during OSHA inspections even if the workplace was nonunion.
The so-called Walk-Around Rule was issued by OSHA in February 2013.
Under federal law, OSHA has the right to inspect any workplace, and when it does, employees can join the inspector. And because workers are not always given the training they need to best advocate for worker safety, the OSH Act allows workers to bring a representative on that walk around, even one that is not employed at that workplace, if the inspector agrees that it is “reasonably necessary to the conduct of an effective and thorough physical inspection.”
The April revocation was another example of the comprehensive effort by both the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress to attack worker safety protections. The Electrical Worker published a review of protections that have been revoked or delayed in the June 2017 Electrical Worker, but new executive and legislative attacks are released nearly every day.
In union workplaces, there is obviously no question that the workers’ representative could be a union member, but it was not clear if nonunion workers could bring as their representative a union worker. The law didn’t say they couldn’t, but it didn’t say they could.
In December 2012, the United Steelworkers asked OSHA for a determination. Three months later, they got the green light.
“Union members almost universally have better safety training than unrepresented workers, so it isn’t surprising that unrepresented workers would seek out help from us. And we were proud to do it because only union safety experts have the worker as their sole focus,” said IBEW Safety Department Director Dave Mullen.
Most of the other safety experts, Mullen said, are academics or corporate consultants that look at worker safety from multiple perspectives --productivity, keeping down lost-time costs or preventing lawsuits—that often boil down to money.
“Union safety experts focus only on getting workers home safe,” Mullen said. “And it rubbed some companies the wrong way.”
Business groups objected immediately. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter June 2013 saying the decision was “very alarming” and would “undermine the safety focus of these inspections and turn them into opportunities for unions or other parties with agendas contrary to the employer to enhance campaigns against the employer.”
The National Federation of Independent Business filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Dallas Division on behalf of a cleaning service that had been inspected multiple times by OSHA. Janitors for the company chose a third-party representative from the Service Employees International Union to come on the safety walkabouts against, they wrote, the “employers’ wishes.”
In February the court refused to throw the rule out, saying it was consistent with OSHA’s purpose of safeguarding workplaces, but they it allow part of NFIB’s case to go forward. But in mid-April, NFIB withdrew its lawsuit.
With the revocation of the rule later that month, it is now becoming clear why.
“This is a bad day for our unrepresented brothers and sisters, one in a procession of bad days,” Mullen said. “People will get hurt because they rescinded this rule and, when they do, there will be an expert somewhere with an economic model showing that paying off that injury makes good business sense.”