OSHA tries to walk union officials into workplaces

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The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) issued a new rule Friday that will result in union organizers accompanying agency representatives during worksite inspections. This will be a huge boost to unions, giving them access to worksites that they would never get inside otherwise.

Federal law allows OSHA inspectors to have worker representatives accompany them during official inspections. Dubbed the “walk around” rule, it had previously been restricted to employees at the workplace being inspected. The revised version allows workers to appoint a “third party” to fill the role, a situation pretty much tailor-made for union officials.

This change is something that unions have long pushed for. OSHA’s official notice for the rulemaking includes numerous statements submitted by unions arguing they should be able to accompany federal inspectors. For example: “The United Steelworkers Union (USW) noted that it has brought in technical experts to serve as designated employee representatives in OSHA inspections.” Not coincidentally, gaining direct access to worksites where management might otherwise try to bar them is a classic union organizing tactic.

Granted, OSHA’s new rule would require a worker to invite the union in. That isn’t likely to be a great hurdle for unions thanks to the practice of “salting.” That’s when a union has an organizer covertly apply for an open position at a worksite for the express purpose of organizing.

Once hired, the union agent is protected from being fired by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which forbids employers from terminating workers for union-related activity. Thus, as long as a union has one “salt” at a worksite it can leverage that gain access for its organizers in the guise of helping inspections. Salting is legal, though there is an effort underway in Congress to prohibit it.

“This power grab does nothing to promote workplace health and safety, and instead pushes the administration’s ‘all-of-government’ agenda to encourage unions and collective bargaining,” warned the trade group Associated Builders and Contractors.

This isn’t the first time that OSHA has tried this. It forwarded a similar rule change in 2013, but four years later a court threw out the expanded rule.

OSHA claims that the new rule “clarifies” the regulation by establishing that “a third-party representative authorized by employees may have a variety of skills, knowledge, or experience that could aid the CSHO’s inspection.” This, the agency asserts, establishes “good cause” that the outside person is “reasonably necessary to the conduct of an effective and thorough physical inspection of the workplace.”

What OSHA really wants is to rewrite the underlying law itself. Unfortunately for the agency, only Congress can do that.