In a departure from its previous guidance, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) recently released an interpretation letter that could potentially open the door to union organizing activity on employer property during OSHA inspections.  The new guidance authorizes non-unionized employees to select union agents as representatives and has been widely interpreted by unions to facilitate the use of OSHA inspections as an organizing tool. 


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Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit significantly limited the time period in which employers may be cited for recordkeeping violations under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (“the Act”) in AKM LLC dba Volks Constructors v. Secretary of Labor, Civ. No. 11-1106.  The Court ruled that such violations must be cited within six months of their occurrence, marking a considerable decrease from the previous practice of citing violations from up to five years prior–the period of time during which injury and illness logs must be retained under the Act.  In doing so, the federal appeals court rejected the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission’s decision upholding an enforcement action against Volks Constructors and the Occupational Safety and Health Agency’s (“OSHA”) argument that Volks’s failure to keep injury and illness logs constituted continuing violations.


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On March 12, 2012, OSHA issued a memorandum expanding on specific policies and practices that OSHA asserts can discourage employees from reporting workplace injuries or illnesses, and thus, violate the Occupational Safety and Health Act (“OSH Act” or “Act”) and/or the Federal Railroad Safety Act (“FRSA”).  Intended as guidance to both field compliance officers and whistleblower investigative staff, the memorandum notes four programs or practices that, while potentially useful to management as a metric for safety performance, cannot be condoned without careful scrutiny because of the risk they could chill employee reporting of workplace injuries or illnesses.


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Most of us have sent a text while driving, and we all know that this practice can be dangerous. This is as true on the rural roads of America, as it is on the busiest of freeways. It is no surprise, with all of our technological distractions, that motor vehicle crashes are consistently the leading cause of worker fatalities. It is also no surprise that OSHA has taken notice of this issue and is taking action. OSHA is prepared to start issuing citations and fines to employers for distracted driving by employees.

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The Obama Administration has addressed labor and employment issues aggressively over the past two years.  The Department of Labor, under President Obama’s direction, has articulated its “Plan/Prevent/Protect” agenda and its focus on openness and transparency in labor practices.  As a result of the steps taken by the Obama Administration in 2010, the new Republican-dominated Congress may have to decide a number of regulatory and legislative measures that will directly affect labor and employment law in 2011. The following is a list of proposed regulations and legislation that employers and their attorneys should watch this year:

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Recently, there has been a large amount of public commentary regarding the dangers of distracted driving, including texting while driving.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which regulates workplace safety, has now officially declared texting while driving to be a workplace hazard and an OSHA violation.  In its recent open letter to employers, OSHA explained that:

It is [the employer’s] responsibility and legal obligation to create and maintain a safe and healthful workplace, and that would include having a clear, unequivocal and enforced policy against the hazard of texting while driving.  Companies are in violation of [OSHA] if, by policy or practice, they require texting while driving, or create incentives that encourage or condone it, or they structure work so that texting is a practical necessity for workers to carry out their job.


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As a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit makes clear, the fact that an employer prevailed against an employee’s Sarbanes-Oxley claim in an administrative proceeding cannot be used to bar a new trial of the claim in federal court.  The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland dismissed a former employee’s SOX lawsuit on the ground that it was precluded by an administrative law judge’s granting of the employer’s motion for summary decision.  The Court of Appeals, in a ruling of first impression, held that the lower court erred and vacated its dismissal in Stone v. Instrumentation Lab Co., 4th Cir., No. 08-1970, 12/31/09.


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The Obama Administration recently proposed requirements to ensure that U.S. companies keep more extensive records of repetitive stress and other types of workplace injuries.  This is one of several signs that employers will face more regulation related to “ergonomics,” or the design and functioning of work spaces, equipment, and tasks in such a manner as to avoid such injuries.


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Last week, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis announced the Department of Labor’s planned launch of an ambitious new public awareness campaign called "We Can Help."  The campaign, set to debut in early 2010, is designed to help inform workers about their rights under federal wage and hour laws.


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