Seyfarth Synopsis: In a victory for employers, OSHA has rescinded its policy allowing union representatives to participate in OSHA inspections of non-union employers.

We blogged previously about OSHA’s 2013 standard interpretation guidance letter allowing workers in non-union workplaces to designate a union representative to act as a “walk-around representative” during OSHA compliance inspections. At the time, we cautioned that an undesirable consequence of the interpretation was that it allowed outsiders with interests potentially contrary to the employer’s to influence the compliance inspection in an effort to generate union support amongst employees. Since its issuance, OSHA has used the letter to force union participation in inspections of non-union workplaces over employer objections.

In September, 2016 the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) sued in Federal Court to challenge OSHA’s “illegal administrative expansion” of the “walk-around” right. The NFIB complaint focused on the fact that, for over four decades, OSHA construed the Act to “afford employees a limited right to accompany an OSHA compliance safety and health officer during a workplace inspection.” See 29 C.F.R. § 1903.8.

OSHA responded to the suit by filing a motion to dismiss in which it raised a number of threshold arguments before attacking the substance of NFIB’s claims. On February 3, 2017, the federal court put a serious dent in OSHA’s continued reliance on the interpretation in a ruling signaling victory to the rising chorus of objections from the business community. The court flatly rejected OSHA’s threshold arguments and then sided with NFIB’s argument that the letter was a legislative rule subject to notice and comment rulemaking, not “interpretive guidance” as OSHA contended. In reaching this conclusion, the court observed that the letter “flatly contradicts a prior legislative rule as to whether the employee representative must himself be an employee,” and, in turn, should have gone through the formal rulemaking process.

On April 25, 2017, OSHA withdrew this policy via a Rescission Memo. It states that “given the express guidance in the statute and the applicable regulation, OSHA is withdrawing the February 21, 2013 letter to Mr. Sallman as unnecessary. Likewise, the guidance in this memorandum supersedes OSHA Instruction CPL 02-00-160, Field Operations Manual (FOM) (8/2/2016), Chapter 3, Section VII.A, which will be revised accordingly.”

Following OSHA’s rescission, NFIB voluntarily dismissed its lawsuit.