Seyfarth Synopsis: Industry has sued to block OSHA’s efforts to give unions increased access to non-union worksites.

We had blogged previously about OSHA’s new standard interpretation guidance letter that would allow workers without a collective bargaining agreement to designate a union representative to act on their behalf as their “walk-around representative” during an OSHA inspection. We warned at that time that this interpretative guidance was essentially an invitation to allow union representatives access to employees at non-union facilities for the purpose of union organizing.

Last week 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 notes 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.

Under OSHA’s long-standing approach to this provision, an “employee representative” had to be an employee of the employer whose workplace was the subject of the inspection. In very limited cases OSHA might allow for third-party technical specialists to accompany the compliance officer when their presence would be “reasonably necessary.” OSHA’s guidance letter blows this wide open by allowing a union to serve as the third-party technical specialist even when the union does not represent the employees.

NFIB indicates that OSHA longstanding construction of the Act’s walk-around right accurately captured a delicate legislative balance. “Congress concluded that employees should be allowed to participate in inspections meant to protect their health and safety. But Congress also recognized that this participatory right should not be used as a pretext to facilitate union access to proselytize employees of open-shop businesses….”

According to the Complaint, the NFIB alleges that the real purpose of the change was to facilitate union access to open-shop workplaces. The interpretation “effected these changes without giving the public prior notice or an opportunity to comment. The [interpretation] conflicts with Congress’s purpose behind the Act’s walk-around provision.” NFIM concludes that interpretation’s promulgation also violated the notice-and-comment requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 553(b)-(c).

We will keep you up-to-date as this case proceeds.