By Andrew H. Perellis, Patrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: In another business-friendly move, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently updated its Justice Manual to clarify that it “should not treat a party’s noncompliance with a guidance document as itself a violation of applicable statutes or regulations [or to] establish a violation by reference to statutes and regulations.”

We had blogged in early 2018 regarding Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand’s memorandum “Limiting Use of Agency Guidance Documents In Affirmative Civil Enforcement Cases.” (Brand Memo), which indicated that the Department would no longer prosecute cases based solely on violations of various agencies’ “guidance documents”. Now DOJ has taken it a step further by adding a section to its Justice Manual (Manual) titled: “Limitation on Use of Guidance Documents in Litigation..” The new section was effective in December 2018.

Under the updated Manual, DOJ (which effectively acts as “outside counsel” to departments and agencies including the DOL, EPA, OSHA, ATF and DEA, among others, in cases exceeding certain penalty thresholds and other criteria) may no longer prosecute cases against alleged violators unless the violations are of properly promulgated (through “notice and comment” rulemaking) regulatory requirements, not agency guidance documents or policies.

The Brand Memo itself was a follow-up to an earlier memo issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on November 16, 2017 (Sessions Memo), which instituted a new policy that prohibits the Department of Justice from using its civil enforcement authority to convert agency guidance documents into binding rules. The Sessions Memo “prevent[ed] the Department of Justice from evading required rulemaking processes by using guidance memos to create de facto regulations. In the past, the Department of Justice and other agencies had blurred the distinction between regulations and guidance documents.”

Under the DOJ’s new policy, DOJ civil litigators are “prohibited from using guidance documents—or noncompliance with guidance documents—to establish violations of law in affirmative civil enforcement actions.” The Brand Memo also indicates that “the [Sessions Memo]. . . prohibits the Department from using its guidance documents to coerce regulated parties into taking any action or refraining from taking any action beyond what is required by the terms of the applicable statute or lawful regulation.” Finally, the Brand Memo confirms that the DOJ “…should not treat a party’s noncompliance with an agency guidance document as presumptively or conclusively establishing that the party violated the applicable statute or regulation.”

While the Brand Memo applied only to affirmative civil enforcement actions brought by the DOJ, we see the updated Manual, Sessions Memo and the Brand Memo as welcome relief from arbitrary use of guidance by departments and agencies such as the DOL, OSHA, or EPA in enforcement proceedings of regulated industry.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth OSHA Compliance, Enforcement & Litigation Team or the Environmental Compliance, Enforcement & Permitting Team.

By Mark A. Lies, II,  Brent I. ClarkAdam R. Young, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: OSHA has just issued a Standard Interpretation clarifying the Obama-era guidance that prohibited incentive programs and circumscribed post-incident drug testing; “Clarification of OSHA’s Position on Workplace Safety Incentive Programs and Post-Incident Drug Testing Under 29 C.F.R. §1904.35(b)(1)(iv).”

We previously blogged about OSHA’s 2016 retaliation regulation and associated guidance, which had explained examples of post-accident drug-testing and safety incentive as instances of unlawful retaliation.  OSHA’s 2016 retaliation rule left employers uncertain about what programs were permissible and whether they would face citations for long-standing safety programs aimed at encouraging safe behaviors and reducing injury rates.

  1. OSHA’s Revised Perspective is Apparent in the New Standard Interpretation

OSHA’s new Standard Interpretation intends to “to clarify the Department’s position that [the rule] does not prohibit workplace safety incentive programs or post-incident drug testing. The Department believes that many employers who implement safety incentive programs and/or conduct post-incident drug testing do so to promote workplace safety and health.” The Interpretation explains that “evidence that the employer consistently enforces legitimate work rules (whether or not an injury or illness is reported) would demonstrate that the employer is serious about creating a culture of safety, not just the appearance of reducing rates.”

Post-incident drug testing policies and safety incentive programs will be considered retaliatory and unlawful only where they seek “to penalize an employee for reporting a work-related injury or illness rather than for the legitimate purpose of promoting workplace safety and health.” Properly formulated and lawful post-incident drug testing policies and safety incentive programs will be permitted and will not result in OSHA citations.

  1. OSHA Permits Consistent Post-Incident Drug Testing Policies

For years, OSHA’s position on post-incident drug testing confounded employers, and employers faced complicated questions in the hours following workplace safety incidents. The Standard Interpretation clarifies that “most instances of workplace drug testing are permissible,” including:

  • “Random drug testing”;
  • “Drug testing unrelated to the reporting of a work-related injury or illness”;
  • “Drug testing under a state workers’ compensation law”;
  • “Drug testing under other federal law, such as a U.S. Department of Transportation rule”; and
  • “Drug testing to evaluate the root cause of a workplace incident that harmed or could have harmed employees.  If the employer chooses to use drug testing to investigate the incident, the employer should test all employees whose conduct could have contributed to the incident, not just employees who reported injuries.”

Accordingly, employers may lawfully implement, random drug testing programs, DOT drug testing programs, drug testing programs under a Collective Bargaining Agreement, and post-incident (also “post-accident”) drug-testing programs. Post-incident drug testing should be conducted consistently on any employee whose conduct may have contributed to the accident, and not merely the employee who was injured in an accident. For example, if a forklift operator collides with a pedestrian and injures the pedestrian, both the operator and pedestrian should be drug tested. OSHA reiterates that employers may not use a post-injury drug testing program, which the Agency views as retaliatory and also exposes employers to worker’s compensation retaliation tort claims.

3.         OSHA Permits Safety Incentive Programs

The Standard Interpretation reverses course on the 2016 retaliation regulation’s prohibition of safety programs. With limited adjustments, OSHA now permits employers to bring back reporting-based safety programs, which the Standard Interpretation lauds as an “important tool to promote workplace safety and health.” The Standard Interpretation permits a program which offers a prize or bonus at the end of an injury-free month. OSHA’s new position thus permits employers to bring back cash bonuses or the much-maligned monthly pizza party. The Standard Interpretation also permits programs that evaluate managers based on their work unit’s lack of injuries.

However, to lawfully implement such a safety program, the employer must implement “adequate precautions” to ensure that employees feel free to report an injury or illness and are not discouraged from reporting. According to OSHA, a mere statement that employees are encouraged to report and will not face retaliation is insufficient. Employers need to undertake their choice of additional “adequate precautions,” such as:

  • “An incentive program that rewards employees for identifying unsafe conditions in the workplace;”
  • “A training program for all employees to reinforce reporting rights and responsibilities and emphasizes the employer’s non-retaliation policy;” or
  • “A mechanism for accurately evaluating employees’ willingness to report injuries and illnesses.”

The Standard Interpretation thus permits and encourages safety incentive programs that reward employees for identifying unsafe conditions in the workplace. A second precaution, a brief training on reporting illnesses and injuries, would be simple for employers to conduct and add to onboarding for new hires. The “mechanism for accurately evaluating employees willingness to report” could be a regularly scheduled, random questionnaire on employee willingness to report injuries and illnesses. Accordingly, if employers adopt these low-burden precautionary measures, they may bring back or now adopt safety programs that are popular and effective at reducing workplace injury rates.

For related information on drug testing requirements, we had blogged on the recent Department of Transportation (DOT) final rule amending its drug testing program for DOT-regulated employers.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the OSHA Compliance, Enforcement & Litigation TeamLabor & Employment, or the Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.