Cal/OSHA Working on Rules to Protect Outdoor Workers from Wildfire Smoke

wildfire

Cal/OSHA is developing regulations that would require employers of outdoor workers to provide respiratory equipment when air quality is significantly affected by wildfires.

Smoke from wildfires can travel hundreds of miles and while an area may not be in danger of the wildfire, the smoke can be thick and dangerous, reaching unhealthy levels. The danger is worst for people with underlying health conditions like heart disease, asthma or other respiratory issues.

Many employers want to hand out respirators to outside workers, but while there are no regulations or laws in place for how to protect your workers during smoky conditions, there are regulations governing the use of ventilators – and they are very specific.

The California Code or Regulations, Title 8, Section 5144 states requires that employers that distribute respirators to their employees must take certain steps, such as implementing a written respiratory protection program, requiring seal-testing before every use and conducting medical evaluations of all workers who will wear a respirator.

Cal/OSHA decided to start work on the new regulations after worker groups filed a petition asking the agency to step in and protect people working outside from unsafe air quality caused by wildfires.

What to expect

The regs are still in draft form and are unlikely to be completed this summer for the upcoming fire season. But here is what you can expect:

The draft of the regulations would require that employers take action when the Air Quality Index (AQI) for particulate matter 2.5 is more than 150, which is considered in the “unhealthy” range.

The protections would also be triggered when a government agency issues a wildfire smoke advisory or there when there is a “realistic possibility” that workers would be exposed to wildfire smoke.

All California employers with “a worker who is outdoors for more than an hour cumulative over the course of their shift” would be required to comply with these regulations:

  • Checking AQI forecasts when employees may reasonably be expected to be exposed to an AQI or more than 150.
  • Establishing a system of communication with employees to inform them about the AQI, changes in conditions that can lead to bad air quality, and protective measures.
  • Training their workers in the steps they would have to take if the AQI breaches 150.
  • First-line protections that employers could implement include:
    • Engineering controls, such as providing enclosed structures or vehicles with effective filtration where employees can continue working.
    • Administrative controls like:
      • Relocating workers,
      • Changing work schedules,
      • Reducing work intensity, or
      • Giving them additional rest periods.
  • If none of the above are feasible, the rule provides for a voluntary respirator (without fit-testing and medical examinations) use when the AQI is between 150 and 300.
  • If the AQI is above 300, fit-testing and a medical examination prior to use would be mandatory.

The new regulations by Cal/OSHA are pending with the Cal/OSHA Standards Board, which is expected to vote on them in July, but it’s unclear how quickly they would be implemented.

For now, if you do have outside employees who are confronted with working in smoky conditions, you should start stockpiling a two-week supply of N95 masks for all of your workers.

Conduct Diversity Training to Head Off Potential Lawsuits

Happy diverse people together

After R&B star SZA said she had security called on her while shopping at a Zefora store in California, the chain closed all of its U.S. stores for an hour to conduct “inclusion workshops” for its 16,000 employees.

Zefora understood the swift backlash that can hit a company that has acted inappropriately towards a customer, particularly if they are a minority. Unfortunately, Zefora is not the only company that has made the spotlight in recent years thanks to rogue employees that cross the line and harass or discriminate against a customer, co-worker, vendor or partner.

And in the age of people video-recording these encounters, a rogue employee could sink your company if the target decides to take legal action.

The second threat is the potential backlash of customers shunning your company once the word spreads on social media. This was the case with two Oregonians who ended up closing their bakery after the public backlash that followed their decision to not bake a wedding cake for a homosexual couple.

The best way for an organization to set a tone of tolerance is through diversity or inclusion training to guide them in their day-to-day interactions with co-workers, customers, partners, vendors and others. While this type of training is not mandated by any state or federal agency, it is recommended whether or not you have a diverse workforce or client base.

Implementing a diversity training program is also an important step in helping to reduce the risk of workplace discrimination and harassment claims. In settling discrimination cases, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission often requires companies to educate employees on the importance of diversity in hiring and promotion, and how to avoid stereotypes.

A proactive employer that wants to avoid problems from the get-go would take that step without being required to.

More important than ever

Our country is becoming more diverse with each passing year. It’s not only different races and religions, but also sexual orientation and alternative lifestyles.

The norms that dictated behavior a half-century ago are transforming. To minimize the risk that employees, supervisors or managers step out of line in this new era, employers must develop an awareness of diversity within their business through appropriate training.

Diversity in the workplace is apparent in everything from our names to the types of food we eat, and long-taboo subjects are now discussed freely. People with disabilities often work alongside openly gay co-workers, and a variety of languages are spoken by employees and customers alike.

Elements of a strong training program

For diversity training to succeed, managers must find ways to integrate the training into daily tasks. It must go beyond a once-a-year training session. Here are some ideas:

Draw the line – Make it clear that intolerance is not acceptable, and that those demonstrating prejudice have no place in your organization.

Get management buy-in – Ingrain in your managers and supervisors the importance of diversity to both boost worker satisfaction and as a risk management tool to avoid lawsuits. Managers understand the personnel dynamics among the staff they manage, as well as interactions with customers.

Treat everyone with respect – Employees should be told that if they prejudge a customer or co-worker and treat them as a lesser individual, they can face be reprimanded and, if the offense is serious enough, fired.

System for handling complaints – Create procedures that all managers must follow if they receive a complaint about harassment or discriminatory behavior, or if an employee witnesses another employee treating a co-worker, customer, vendor or another person in a demeaning way.

Hold a seminar for all employees – Review what is acceptable and not acceptable, and cover all of the above. Try to focus on positives and give employees the opportunity to ask questions.

If Your Firm Is Sued for Discrimination, Act Fast to Check EEOC Complaint

discrimination-EEOC

Employers that are hit with a discrimination complaint must act fast to compare the allegations in the lawsuit to the earlier complaint the worker filed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

If the employer can find that the allegations in the complaint filed with the EEOC do not match those in the subsequent lawsuit filed by the worker, it can quickly move to have the case dismissed, but if it waits too long, it loses the chance. That’s according to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June 2019.

Under procedural rules, employees filing suit under Title VII Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 must first file a complaint with the EEOC.

The decision that paved the way for this new procedural rule was a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Fort Bend County vs. Lois M. Davis.

The ruling means that employers that are sued for discrimination under Title VII have a limited amount of time to challenge the lawsuit if the allegations differ in any way from the original EEOC complaint. If they act fast, then they stand a good chance of convincing the court to throw out the complaint.

However, if an employer dawdles and waits too long to challenge the case if they find a discrepancy, they may lose the opportunity.

If the employer in this case had acted quickly, it would never have gone to the Supreme Court, legal experts say.

The case details

An IT worker in Texas had reported that her director was sexually harassing her, and after an investigation he was fired. But after that, her supervisors began retaliating by cutting back on her work responsibilities. She filed a charge with the EEOC and, while the charge was pending, she was told to report to work on a Sunday. She refused and went to church instead.

She tried to supplement her allegations and wrote the word “religion” by hand on her EEOC intake questionnaire, but she didn’t change her formal charge document by adding that word.

The case went to trial and was appealed, and then it was sent back to the local U.S. District Court to decide the remaining charge of religious discrimination. The case had been in the courts for three years at that point.

That’s when her former employer asserted that the District Court didn’t have jurisdiction of the case because she had failed to state the claim in her EEOC charge papers. That issue was taken all the way to the Supreme court, which wrote in its decision that an objection to a charge because of a discrepancy may be forfeited “if the party asserting the rule waited too long to raise the point.”

The takeaway

If your organization is the target of a discrimination lawsuit, make sure to check the original EEOC charge for any discrepancies. If there are any, you can consult with your lawyers about filing a motion to have the complaint dismissed.

Why Your Business May Need Pollution Insurance

pollution

Many businesses that produce some type of pollutant throughout the course of daily business operations don’t know they are doing so.

Others know they are producing pollutants and have processes and safeguards in place to reduce their release into the environment. A business can be held liable for some very costly damages when these byproducts pollute another property or harm another individual.

Pollution liability clauses were once part of general liability policies, but the extensive asbestos problems in the 1970s spurred most insurers to remove pollution protection from their general liability policies.

Today, pollution liability coverage is obtained through a separate pollution insurance policy. Pollution insurance policies are written for businesses of all sizes, shapes, and forms – from pig farms and printers to apartment complexes, salons, and dry-cleaning businesses.

Why pollution insurance?

Many businesses run the risk of creating pollution during normal daily operations.

There’s also a risk from any existing pollution already on a business’s site of operation. In either case, a business could be held liable if its pollution ends up on a third party’s property, causes damage to the property or harms an individual.

Without insurance, the business would be on the hook for paying for those damages out of pocket.

What do policies cover?

The basic premise of a pollution policy is that an insured party gets a claim related to damages caused by pollution it caused.

This insurance will protect your financial interests in the event a clean-up becomes necessary. Buying pollution liability insurance will cover your interests against lawsuits where a third party could be injured by a toxic substance produced as a result of your work.

Like most types of insurance, the specifics of a pollution policy can vary somewhat from insurer to insurer.

Depending on the insurer, a pollution policy will typically cover

  • Damage to properties and individuals
  • The cost of cleaning up pollution on a third party’s property
  • Pollution incidents that occurred after the policy was
  • Investigative, legal, and court costs should the claim enter the legal system.

Who needs coverage?

Businesses that have risks related to the handling of pollutants and hazardous materials, design professionals who work with projects where there are environmental issues, as well as those who own and occupy premises that have environmental issues, need pollution liability insurance.

This includes:

  • Property owners and tenants whose buildings and land have a history of having pollutants on the property or premises. This would include a building on land that had an underground storage tank that leaked fuel oil before it was removed, contaminating the soil.
  • Contractors such as roofers who handle pollutants like tar as a part of their operations need contractors pollution liability insurance to cover damage resulting from a pollution incident.
  • Architects and engineers who are involved in projects that have issues related to pollutants need to add pollution liability to their errors and omissions insurance policy to manage the risk of making a mistake regarding the presence or absence of pollution issues as they plan and execute a project.

The takeaway

Don’t overlook pollution insurance as an important element of risk management. Should any questions or concerns about pollution insurance and insurance requirements arise, call us.