On April 25, 2017, Dorothy Dougherty, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) and Thomas Galassi, Director of OSHA’s Directorate of Enforcement Programs, issued a Memorandum to the agency’s Regional Administrators notifying them of the withdrawal of its previous guidance, commonly referred to as the Fairfax Memorandum, permitting “workers at a worksite without a collective bargaining agreement” to designate “a person affiliated with a union or community organization to act on their behalf as a walkaround representative” during an OSHA workplace investigation.

The Lawsuit Challenging the Participation of Union Representatives in OSHA Inspections

Two days later, on April 27, 2017, the National Federation of Independent Business filed a  with the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, effectively declaring victory in their lawsuit challenging the issuance of the Fairfax Memorandum as being inconsistent with and unsupported by the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the regulations issued under it allowing for the limited participation of third party experts during OSHA conducted workplace safety inspections.

For readers who have been following this issue and the litigation, the withdrawal of the Fairfax Memorandum and the plaintiff’s decision to discontinue their law suit should come as no surprise. This past February, the court denied OSHA’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit challenging the Fairfax Memorandum and OSHA’s decision to allow the participation of union representatives in non-union workplaces, finding that the plaintiff had “stated a claim upon which relief can be granted,” and that “the [Fairfax Memorandum] flatly contradicts a prior legislative rule as to whether the employee representative” in such a walk-around inspection “must himself be an employee.”

OSHA and the DOL’s Decision to Withdraw the Fairfax Memorandum

Less than a week later, OSHA filed an Unopposed Motion For Extension of time to answer the complaint in the Federation’s lawsuit, explaining to the Court that “the extension of the deadline for defendants to answer is necessary to allow incoming leadership personnel at the United States Department of Labor adequate time to consider the issues.”

The Memorandum withdrawing the Fairfax Memorandum reiterates the requirements of 29 CFR 1903.8 (c) that an employee representative who accompanies an OSHA representative during a walkaround workplace inspection “shall be an employee of the employer,” and that the only exceptions in which a non-employee may participate is “where good cause is shown” and the participation of a non-employee, such as an industrial hygienist or a safety engineer” is “reasonably necessary to the conduct of an effective and thorough inspection of the workplace” in the judgment of the OSHA Compliance and Safety Health Officer conducting the examination. Notably, however, rather than actually stating that the Fairfax Memorandum was inconsistent with the provisions of the statute or the OSHA regulations, the April 25th memorandum simply refers to it as “unnecessary.”

What this Means for Employers

First and foremost, OSHA’s issuance of the April 25th memorandum makes clear that union representatives who are not the certified or recognized bargaining representative of the employees at a facility to be inspected by OSHA have no legal right to participate in such inspections.  Accordingly, it is equally clear that an employer faced with such an inspection at a facility that a union is seeking to organize should understand that the union’s representatives have no right to participate.

An important effect of the withdrawal of the Fairfax Memorandum will be to deny unions a potentially potent tool for organizing. As Judge Fitzwater described in his Memorandum and Order denying OSHA’s motion to dismiss the Federation’s lawsuit in February, unions such as the UAW in its ongoing organizing campaign at Nissan in Tennessee have come to rely upon participation in OSHA inspections as a valuable tool.

No doubt with the confirmation of Secretary Acosta, leadership of the Department of Labor will continue to review and reassess positions and actions taken during the past eight years.

As we reported last week, the U.S. District Court refused to dismiss a challenge to OSHA’s controversial 2013 Fairfax Memorandum, which allowed for the participation of union representatives in OSHA safety inspections at workplaces where the union did not represent the workers.   We asked at the time whether the Trump Administration would continue to defend that change in policy.  This week, we saw the first concrete evidence suggesting that OSHA is at least reconsidering and may at a minimum drop its defense of the practice.

On Monday February 13th, OSHA filed an Unopposed Motion For Extension of time, requesting an additional 30 days to file an answer to the complaint, which otherwise would have been due today, February 17th. As OSHA’s lawyers explained in the Motion, the agency stated that “the extension of the deadline for defendants to answer is necessary to allow incoming leadership personnel at the United States Department of Labor adequate time to consider the issues.”

While it may be risky to predict with assurance what the outcome will be of the incoming leadership’s assessment of the issues, there is a strong likelihood that the new leadership may abandon not only the defense of this legal challenge but that they will also return to the interpretation of the OSHA regulation allowing for an employee representative at such Safety Walkarounds until 2013. As OSHA’s own rules make clear, while employees have the right to an employee representative present, the “authorized representative(s) shall be an employee(s) of the employer,” unless “good cause is shown why accompaniment by a third party who is not an employee of the employer (such as an industrial hygienist or a safety engineer) is reasonably necessary to the conduct of an effective and thorough physical inspection of the workplace, such third party may  accompany the Compliance Safety and Health Officer during the inspection.”

With the new administration’s nomination of R. Alexander Acosta, it appears that the new incoming leadership may be taking shape at the Department of Labor.  No doubt, the question of union representation at OSHA safety walkarounds will be only one of many issues that the incoming leadership personnel at the United States Department of Labor will be taking time to reconsider.