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Congress Accuses OSHA of Inserting Itself Into Hotel Labor Disputes

By:  Amanda Strainis-Walker

OSHA’s recent string of hotel inspections in response to formal safety and health complaints filed by UNITE-HERE and others on behalf of hotel housekeepers is under serious scrutiny from the House of Representatives Subcommittee that oversees OSHA’s operations.  OSHA leadership is defending its decision to inspect hotels, and is signaling that OSHA will not shy away from inspecting employers in the midst of organizing campaigns and/or contentious bargaining over labor agreements.

Over the last year, OSHA received a number of formal, written complaints alleging that employees at Hyatt Hotels were exposed to various hazards, including musculoskeletal injuries, and exposures to hazardous chemicals and potentially infectious materials. The Complaints also alleged that injury and illness records were inadequate. OSHA has already conducted detailed workplace inspections in response to these Complaints at hotels in Illinois, Texas, Indiana and elsewhere.  OSHA has dedicated substantial agency resources (700+ hours on just two inspections of the same employer in the same city) to its first wave of inspections in response to these coordinated multi-city OSHA Complaints.

Industry and the House Subcommittee on Education and the Workforce have called into question the appropriateness of these inspections. Specifically, Representative John Kline (R-MN), Chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, forwarded an oversight request to the Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, David Michaels, in July of this year.  In his request, Rep. Kline expressed concern that OSHA was getting involved in a labor dispute, contrary to OSHA’s longstanding written policy stating that “under no circumstances are [OSHA compliance officers] to become involved in an onsite dispute involving labor-management issues . . . [and] make every effort to ensure that their actions are not interpreted as supporting either party to the labor dispute.”

The Department of Labor is standing its ground, and in an August 22, 2011 letter back to the Subcommittee, responded that “whether there are ongoing labor disputes at any of the properties . . . is entirely irrelevant to OSHA’s decision to conduct an inspection.”  This response represents a significant departure from OSHA’s past practice, and the agency’s own written policy.  More importantly for hotel operators and employers across all industries, this response signals an invitation for organized labor to either directly use OSHA to its advantage during labor disputes, or at the very least to threaten employers that it will do so, which threats now have to be taken seriously.

Employers in the hospitality industry and otherwise, should take the following steps to reduce or mitigate the risk of an OSHA inspection and enforcement action:

1. Conduct regular self-inspections at each location, document findings, and take and document corrective actions;

2. Enforce safety policies and procedures through discipline;

3. Regularly review and update key policies related to the following OSHA standards:

· Injury & illness recordkeeping;

· Hazard communication;

· Bloodborne pathogens;

· Emergency action plans;

· Lockout/Tagout; and

· Personal Protective Equipment.

4. Train employees regarding OSHA standards and ergonomic hazards.