By Megan Shaked and Eric Conn
In a case of first impression, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that a limited private right of action included in the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (the OSH Act) is very narrow and it does not continue after the Department of Labor completes its enforcement proceedings.
The OSH Act does not provide employees or other interested parties with a private right of action against employers to enforce OSHA standards or OSH Act requirements against employers, but it does, in very limited circumstances, allow employees to sue OSHA for the agency’s failure to address workplace safety concerns under. Historically, employees’ role in OSHA enforcement is just to observe workplace safety violations and lodge anonymous complaints with OSHA, requesting that OSHA conduct an inspection. OSHA then makes its own independent determination whether there are grounds for safety violations; i.e., whether to issue citations.
One area where employees have a slightly more power is in the context of imminent dangers. OSHA has authority under the OSH Act, when it identifies an imminent danger (or is informed of an imminent danger by a whistleblower-employee), to seek injunctive relief to promptly address the danger or stop work at the workplace. In this rare circumstance—where the risk of danger in the workplace is “imminent”—employees can attempt to force their employers’ and OSHA’s hands by Continue reading
By Eric J. Conn and Mark M. Trapp
When the Trump Administration’s OSHA declined repeatedly to issue a COVID-19 emergency temporary standard and otherwise favored issuing guidance over citations, the agency faced a series of lawsuits and legal challenges from worker advocacy groups and national unions. OSHA prevailed in those actions, retaining its primacy and exclusive authority to make workplace safety enforcement decisions. But in the wake of those failed legal challenges, pro-labor advocates and Democratic politicians and policymakers have begun a serious push to establish a private right of action for employees and their representatives under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
For example, in July of 2020, the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR), a left-leaning think tank focused on advancing policies to address health and well-being of workers and others, issued a report calling on Congress to legislate a private right of action for employees about workers safety conditions. The purpose of CPR’s policy proposal is explained this way:
OSHA has failed not only to protect workers from existing hazards – ranging from unsecured trenches to infectious diseases like COVID-19 – but has also taken minimal action to tackle emerging risks, such as those associated with climate change, the reshoring of manufacturing jobs, increased automation, and the expansion of artificial intelligence in the workplace. . . . [I]t is time to address the law’s and agency’s shortcomings and chart a course of action to revolutionize worker health and safety for the next 50 years.
Fixing the current system requires an updated and vastly improved labor law that empowers workers to speak up about health and safety hazards, rather than risk their lives out of fear of losing employment and pay. It also requires that workers be empowered to fight back when government agencies fail to enforce safety and health requirements. Our vision is to guarantee all workers a private right of action to enforce violations of the OSH Act, coupled with incentives for speaking up and strong whistleblower protections to ensure workers can and will utilize their new authority.