Lexie R. Pereira | Forum on Construction Law
Construction industry association groups applaud the June 11, 2020 U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia’s decision, which denied the AFL-CIO’s (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) emergency petition for a writ of mandamus against OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration).1 In what some may call a surprising turn of events, the construction industry is celebrating deference to OSHA.
The administrative petition, filed on May 18, 2020 by the AFL-CIO, together with 23 national unions, was intended to compel OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard (“ETS”) to protect U.S. workers against COVID-19. OSHA is authorized to issue an ETS upon its determination that an ETS is “necessary” because “employees are exposed to grave danger” in the workplace. 29 U.S.C. §655(c); see In re AFL-CIO, USCA Case #20-1158, (D.C. Cir. 2020). The court stated that OSHA is owed “considerable deference,” especially in these unprecedented times, and found that it acted reasonably when it determined not to issue an ETS at this time. In re AFL-CIO, USCA Case #20-1158, (D.C. Cir. 2020).
Construction industry association groups, such as the Associated Builders and Contractors and National Association of Home Builders, are happy with the decision because they considered an ETS to be an inappropriate measure in such turbulent times. Following the decision, OSHA will continue to develop guidance documents. Not only does this approach allow the agency to swiftly adapt to new COVID-19 information released by other government officials and scientists, it also allows OSHA to continue to rely on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The problem with this approach, as alleged by AFL-CIO, is that these guidance documents are not mandatory. As follows, AFL-CIO and its supporters are disappointed with the decision, claiming that OSHA’s guidelines are too flexible in that they do not pose a threat of OSHA action for an employer’s noncompliance. Given that OSHA in-person checks of construction sites have fallen to about 16% of pre-COVID-19 inspection levels, the concern may not be unfounded.2 Construction workers, perhaps to a layperson’s surprise, were among the most universally essential workers during the pandemic. This fact can be concerning since, as mentioned by Gaetano Piccirilli and Patrick McKnight in an earlier Dispute Resolver blogpost, construction workers had one of the highest mortality rates during the 1918 Flu pandemic. The combination of higher risk and less frequent OSHA visits may be a reason complaints have increased nearly tenfold.3 In fact, the AFL-CIO’s petition set forth that thousands of workers have been infected on the job.
Nonetheless, construction sites are certainly not going unwatched. Instead, the decrease of OSHA visits is most likely replaced with an increase of state and local inspections. States like Massachusetts, for example, have implemented their own Mandatory Workplace Safety Standards and sector-specific workplace protocols, including Safety Standards for Construction. And although nobody knows exactly how to proceed during COVID-19, after the U.S. Court of Appeal’s decision, at least some construction industry groups are comfortable leaving it up to the “experts.”
Learn more about the scope of OSHA, the extent it preempts (and does not preempt) state and local government action, and what state and local governments are doing to ensure the safety of workers within their jurisdictions at an upcoming ABA webinar on June 29 at 1 pm ET. More details here: https://www.americanbar.org/events-cle/mtg/web/401521567/.
1 Court Rejects Bid for OSHA COVID-19 Emergency Standard, CONSTRUCTION DIVE (June 12, 2020).↩
2 OSHA Construction Safety Inspections Plunge 84% in Pandemic, BLOOMBERG LAW (May 14, 2020).↩