Regulatory Overreach Compromises Workplace Safety Initiatives

In case you had any doubt that the current public debate over the scope of federal regulation is more about political ideology rather than practical reality, look no further than OSHA’s ramped up oversight of workplace safety issues.

Now on the surface, this may sound like a laudable focus because almost everyone agrees that there is a role for government in making sure that sensible workplace safety standards are established and adhered to. But of course, in this current political climate Obama regulators just don’t know when to say when.

Specifically, OSHA has recently started to subpoena workplace safety audits prepared by workers’ compensation self-insurers and insurance carriers. Keep in mind that that these audits are prepared on voluntary basis so that employers/insurers are better able to proactively address any safety deficiencies that may exist. Such audits are particularly important tools for workers’ compensation self-insurers because they “own” every dollar saved on payments to injured workers.

Historically, OSHA has not attempted to access such audits because everyone understood that employers would likely stop preparing these risk management tools if they could be used against them in regulatory enforcement and/or legal proceedings.

This precedence has been overturned by a recent federal district court ruling stating that OSHA does have the right to subpoena safety audits and related documentation. Specifically, the ruling in the case of Solis v. Grinnell Mutual Reinsurance Company concluded that audit subpoena are generally enforceable if:

1) They reasonably relate to an investigation within OSHA’s authority;
2) The requested documents are relevant to OSHA’s investigation;
3) The request is not too vague
4) Proper administrative procedures have been followed; and
5) The subpoena does not demand information for an “illegitimate purpose”

According to OSHA’s internal policy regarding voluntary self-audits, the agency will not “routinely” request such audits at the beginning of an inspection, or use the audits to identify hazards to inspect.
But now with a favorable court ruling in their back pocket, it’s very reasonable to expect that OSHA regulators will, in fact, make safety audit subpoenas a routine part of their investigative process.

Of course, and ironically, the real victims are the workers as many employers are likely to curtail such formal audits in response to OSHA’s invasive zeal. Another classic example of “no good deed goes unpunished” apparently embraced by this administration.

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