New Administration and Economic Woes Add New Threats to Employers; Veteran workplace attorney foresees rise in OSHA investigations and workers compensation claims

Date: Apr 15, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C – When U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis appointed former Democratic congressional aide, OSHA staffer, and long-time union safety and health professional Jordan Barab as the acting administrator of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration last week, the move underscored the Obama Administration's more aggressive approach to workplace safety.

The appointment, which was hailed by labor unions, places Barab with a pro-employee perspective, who was one of the strongest critics of the Bush Administration, as the head of an agency that had worked more cooperatively with private industry during the past eight years. It also signals that OSHA will more stridently pursue workplace safety violations, according to David Sarvadi, a partner with Keller and Heckman LLP, in Washington, D.C.

"During his previous stint at OSHA, Jordan Barab was a key player in the Clinton Administration's effort to adopt a workplace ergonomics standard," said Sarvadi, a certified industrial hygienist. "While that approach was rejected by Congress at the start of the Bush Administration, I expect he will once again push OSHA to adopt many new standards, including one on ergonomics at some point. Many of the proposals are controversial, which will likely trigger a protracted political and legal battle, starting in Congress."

Meantime, employers are already straining under the struggling economy, said the veteran workplace safety attorney.

"There is plenty of evidence suggesting that negative psychosocial factors lead to stress and workers compensation claims. When the economy goes bad, people who lose their jobs may feel the strain as they look to replace their lost income and reduce their expenses. In these circumstances, it is understandable that problems people normally tolerate become magnified by the additional stress – even if workplace conditions haven't actually changed," Sarvadi said. "As a result, we have seen in the past and are very likely to now see an increase in workers' compensation claims and OSHA recordable injuries and illnesses as a result."

Sarvadi, who was counsel to the National Coalition on Ergonomics when it was formed in 1994, said that this is a good time for employers to review their workplace safety programs in anticipation of what may be wholesale changes at OSHA, in spite of the difficulties of the current economy.

"In spite of the difficult economic times, there will be more political pressure on OSHA to conduct comprehensive workplace inspections and to look more closely at ergonomics and safety issues," Sarvadi added. "By taking preventative steps and identifying workplace hazards, employers can reduce their potential direct costs of injuries and reduce exposure to citations and costly liabilities under this new enforcement regime."

Sarvadi suggests that this is a good time for employers to not only evaluate their workplace conditions under federal and state Occupational Safety and Health Laws, but to also conduct regular check-ups to make sure new hazards don't arise and accidents are avoided.

"Conducting an independent workplace audit is a great place to start," Sarvadi concluded. "Creating an ongoing safety program is a good next step to prevent injuries and avoid costly claims."

For more information on these and other employment and labor issues, please contact Tara Busby at (202) 434-4174 or Crystal Rockwood at (562) 682-6482, or visit khlaw.com.