Author Archive for: Steven Porter

Potential security breach prompts suspension of OSHA’s new injury-tracking portal

August 17th, 2017 Email This Post Print This Post

Just two weeks after its already-delayed launch, an online portal designed to collect data on worksite injuries has been suspended amid information security concerns.

Use of the portal, OSHA’s Injury Tracking Application (ITA), was supposed to become mandatory for certain employers on July 1, 2017, pursuant to the controversial electronic recordkeeping rule. But officials signaled back in May that they would be postponing the deadline, and they formally did so in June—giving the approximately 466,000 affected employers five additional months, until December, to begin using the application.

The ITA finally went live August 1, a full month after its original implementation date, as labor attorney Tressi L. Cordaro with Jackson Lewis P.C. noted Monday in a blog post. The ITA was suspended, however, on Tuesday after the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) notified the Department of Labor (DOL) that user information might have been compromised, Cordaro added Wednesday.

Those who tried accessing the portal Thursday morning were greeted with a message in red lettering: “Alert: Due to technical difficulties with the website, some pages are temporarily unavailable. To file a complaint with OSHA or to ask a safety and health question, call 1-800-321-6742 (OSHA).”

Bloomberg BNA’s Ben Penn reported Wednesday that a DOL official didn’t identify the one company involved in the potential breach. While the portal will eventually be used to collect detailed employee records, experts told Penn that the information currently being collected isn’t sensitive. That being said, the snafu could betray a level of unpreparedness in the ITA rollout.

“This agency has a lot of experience with doing this—and doing it right,” said Deborah Berkowitz, a senior fellow with the National Employment Law Project who served as OSHA chief of staff under former President Barack Obama, according to Penn’s report. “This is a brand new application, and because of the new administration, it was never tested.”

Berkowitz added that OSHA should take the time offered by this suspension to “get it right” and protect the database.

Representatives with DOL and OSHA contacted via email and telephone were not immediately available Thursday to answer questions about the suspension and possible breach.

Treatment center slapped with $207k proposed fine as OSHA announcements grow rarer

August 16th, 2017 Email This Post Print This Post

Facility accused of failing to address workplace violence risks it had promised to remedy

A psychiatric treatment center in Massachusetts faces more than $207,000 in proposed penalties after OSHA accused the facility of failing to adequately protect employees from workplace violence, despite having promised specifically to do so.

Notice of the proposed action against Lowell Treatment Center, which is operated by UHS of Westwood Pembroke Inc., comes as OSHA has grown significantly quieter about its enforcement activity under President Donald Trump’s administration than it had been under former President Barack Obama. There have been fewer enforcement-related OSHA press releases issued in the seven months since Trump took office than there were in just the final month of 2016.

It remains unclear how OSHA decides which enforcement actions warrant a press release. An agency spokesperson was not immediately able Wednesday to answer questions about this threshold. But we know that this case entails allegations that the facility failed to keep specific promises it made last year in a formal settlement agreement stemming from an unfavorable 2015 evaluation by federal inspectors.

“Our inspectors found that employees throughout the Lowell Treatment Center continued to be exposed to incidents of workplace violence that could have been greatly reduced had the employer fully implemented the settlement agreement,” OSHA’s Boston-based regional administrator Galen Blanton said last week in a written statement.

The management company, which operates 350 facilities throughout the United States and United Kingdom, notified OSHA that it intends to contest the findings, according to the press release.

Micah Smith, an OSHA attorney with Conn Maciel Carey in Washington, D.C., said during a webinar Tuesday that the Obama administration had engaged in “regulation by shaming.” And any Republican in the White House would be expected to back off of Obama-era levels of enforcement, he said.

“We’re expecting to see this change, and that press-heavy enforcement model to be rolled back,” Smith said. “We haven’t seen any official actions, but in the early days of the administration, most agencies across the government have been encouraged or required to reduce their press activity.”

Smith said there were two or three OSHA enforcement press releases in June and July this year, compared to 25-40 for each of the same months last year. Even so, it’s important to note that OSHA’s priorities are just as unsettled as its staffing.

“As with all things, without the permanent OSHA team in place, we’re still reading the tea leaves a little bit,” Smith said.

The press release in this case comes two months after OSHA endured criticism for backing off an allegation that Bergen Regional Medical Center (BRMC) in Paramus, New Jersey, had an inadequate workplace violence prevention plan. Jordan Barab, a former OSHA official under Obama, drafted a lengthy blog post critical of the move, and he clashed on Twitter with Eric Conn, another attorney with Conn Maciel Carey, who was hired to represent BRMC’s defense against the citation.

Barab, who has also been critical of the marked decrease in the issuance of OSHA enforcement press releases, hasn’t blogged since OSHA issued its press release last week.

Update (8/23/17): Barab blogged yesterday about this case. “Although I am frequently critical of OSHA under the Trump administration,” he wrote, “never let it be said that I have failed to praise the agency when they do something good.”

Bizarre circumstances led to hospital’s hazmat response, ER lockdown

August 2nd, 2017 Email This Post Print This Post

Report: Suspicious package that prompted mini-emergency was letter from government agency

If you subscribe to HCPro’s monthly Briefings on Hospital Safety newsletter, you will recall the story of a hazardous material scare and emergency lockdown at Frederick Memorial Hospital in Maryland. Two men opened a piece of mail at home in May, discovered a suspicious substance inside, and began experiencing skin and respiratory irritation, so they went to the local ED—and brought the unknown substance with them. That, of course, sent hospital staff scurrying to contain the threat.

Because the men live across the street from the U.S. Army’s Fort Detrick, a hub for biodefense research, there was added concern that the substance might be a biological agent. That turned out not to be the case. Investigators quickly identified the substance as a relatively common household chemical. But the circumstances leading up to that hazmat scare and lockdown, as reported in the local newspaper, are still baffling.

The substance that caused the hubbub was ultimately determined to be an ingredient found in rat poisoning, The Frederick News-Post’s Jeremy Arias reported last week. That substance was delivered in an envelope from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland, to the home address of Jay Zimmerman, who said he had held a position with NIST for 33 years. The envelope also reportedly contained a letter from NIST informing Zimmerman that he would be removed from his position.

Zimmerman, who retired from NIST in June, told the News-Post that he believes his former employer used the substance to target him as an act of retaliation because Zimmerman had filed a complaint against NIST earlier this year alleging discrimination and harassment on account of his sexual orientation and disability. A spokesperson for NIST declined to comment on the allegations, citing the Privacy Act.

Investigators reviewed surveillance footage at NIST that shows the suspicious package being sealed, Frederick police Sgt. Andrew Alcorn told the News-Post.

“There is nothing on the video that appears to be suspicious or that indicates any of that substance was put into the package at that point,” Alcorn said.

Although the case was officially suspended without any charges being filed, the resulting response gave Frederick Memorial an opportunity to test its own emergency preparedness.

“When events like this take place,” said Phil Giuliano, the hospital’s director of public safety and security, “I think it’s a reminder for hospital staff, hospital leaders, and community members as a whole how important it is to have strong relationships, to maintain strong relationships with those other partners you have in your county, in your jurisdiction, in your area of operations.”

For more on this story and how Frederick Memorial kept its workers and patients safe, be sure to read the News-Post’s full report and the August edition of Briefings on Hospital Safety.

Spruced-up online OSHA form aims to help whistleblowers

July 28th, 2017 Email This Post Print This Post

A revised online form backed by OSHA aims to make it easier for whistleblowers to complain about their employers, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced Friday.

Workers still have a right to lodge formal complaints in a number of other ways: snail mail, fax, hand-delivery, verbally on the phone or in person. But the updated web-based filing option offers an interactive option available all day every day, designed help workers navigate the potentially daunting seascape of laws and regulations that keep worker rights afloat.

The whistleblower provisions of some 22 statutes are enforced by OSHA, affecting everything from workplace health and safety to consumer protection and nuclear power. (Details on that are available at www.whistleblowers.gov.)

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Don’t fall prey to imposters peddling OSHA posters

July 10th, 2017 Email This Post Print This Post

People posing as OSHA compliance officers have been trying to dupe employers into paying for posters they can get from the government for free, the Utah Labor Commission warned recently.

The scamsters have contacted Utah businesses in person, on the phone, and even in writing, threatening inspections, citations, and fines, unless the employers immediately pay for consultation and training services and the posters. These tactics have popped up in other states as well.

“We encourage employers to research and ask questions about the companies or individuals offering to sell OSHA posters,” said Utah Labor Commissioner Jaceson Maughan in a statement. “They should also know that we provide the posters at no charge.”

The posters, which businesses must display in a prominent location, are available for download from the commission’s website. Real OSHA compliance officers in Utah carry identification and do not collect money, the commission noted.

Last year, a Florida man used his company to dupe newly opened small businesses out of at least $1.3 million, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The company sold free posters for $179.99 to $189.99, then made it difficult for customers to obtain refunds, according to the FTC’s complaint.

Jobs report: American healthcare sector keeps growing amid uncertainty

July 7th, 2017 Email This Post Print This Post

While the number of people working in construction, manufacturing, and several other major industries held steady last month, the American healthcare sector continued to grow, adding 37,000 jobs in June, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) announced today.

That figure outperformed the average number of healthcare jobs gained monthly all of last year and so far this year, the BLS announcement noted. (The economy added 32,000 healthcare jobs per month, on average, in 2016 and 24,000 jobs per month in the first half of 2017.)

The number of people working in hospitals grew by 12,000 in June, but employment in ambulatory healthcare services grew even faster, with 26,000 jobs added. This reflects a decades-long shift in how and where physicians and their staffs care for patients. More services are being offered in outpatient settings, and some community hospitals, especially in rural areas, have fallen on hard times.

The shifting landscape impacts everything from the way clinics ensure basic environmental cleaning to how health systems strategize with regard to employment and market share. And, of course, it impacts the way OSHA and other regulatory bodies go about protecting workers and the public.

Across all industries, the U.S. economy added 222,000 jobs in June, beating both expectations and recent monthly averages. This bird’s-eye view of the economy, however, misses much of the nuance on the ground level, where many hiring managers are on unsure footing. Healthcare employers, especially, are watching Washington, where the Republican-controlled Congress and White House are struggling to finalize a budget and healthcare plan, as The New York Times reported.

“This is an unprecedented level of political uncertainty,” William E. Spriggs, chief economist for the AFL-CIO union, told the Times. “That is creating a drag on the economy.”

Hiring at medical labs and nursing homes, for instance, has been on the decline, Spriggs said, attributing the slowdown to the number of unknowns in the future of the U.S. healthcare system.

For the latest news and advice in healthcare safety and compliance, be sure to follow HCPro’s line of products to keep you informed and thriving.

OSHA delays controversial electronic recordkeeping rule

June 27th, 2017 Email This Post Print This Post

Compliance date scheduled for next week bumped five months down the road.

I mentioned last month that OSHA officials had signaled their intent to delay a new electronic recordkeeping rule that’s being challenged in more than one federal courtroom. Today, less than a week before the July 1 compliance date, they formalized that proposal.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced that the new compliance date would be December 1, giving OSHA five months more to review “questions of law and policy.”

The rule would require about 466,000 employers nationwide to file their Form 300A summaries of workplace injuries and illnesses with OSHA electronically. It has been controversial in large part because employers dislike the idea that OSHA plans to publish some of their injury and illness data online.

Employers have also opposed the rule’s prohibition of incentive and testing programs associated with injury reporting, as Bloomberg BNA’s Bruce Rolfsen explained. Workers groups contend that ending such programs will protect employees from being ostracized by their employers for voicing safety concerns.

The deadline to submit public comment on the proposed deadline extension is July 13.

‘Don’t Hold The Door’: Boston hospital uses multimedia approach to reinforce safety training

June 23rd, 2017 Email This Post Print This Post

Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston is well-acquainted with the dangers an unauthorized person can pose when granted access to restricted areas. The facility suffered unflattering headlines earlier this year when the public learned that 42-year-old Cheryl Wang had bluffed her way into five ORs and other patient care areas late last year by posing as a doctor-in-training, despite having been dismissed from her surgical residency program.

Wang’s case—which brought an unsettling reminder of the 2015 security lapse that enabled a disgruntled man to corner and kill a BWH doctor in an exam room—drew attention to an extremely common security vulnerability known as “tailgating” or “piggybacking.” When walking through a doorway, it’s common courtesy to hold the door for whoever is behind you. That’s a problem, however, if the person behind you doesn’t have permission to go where you’re going.

To reinforce the lesson that every hospital employee has a responsibility to help keep unauthorized people out of restricted areas, BWH produced instructional videos that depict disturbingly mundane security lapses. The two dramatizations, titled “Be Aware” and “Don’t Hold The Door,” will be shown to all 18,000 of BWH’s employees.

“We intended for the videos to be provocative, to invoke a strong reaction, so that they would be memorable,” said Erin McDonough, BWH’s chief communication officer, in a statement.

One video depicts two workers chatting as they return to their stations from a coffee break, unaware that an unknown woman has followed them onto a restricted elevator. From there, the woman gains access to a maternity ward to abduct a newborn. The other shows a worker in scrubs politely holding the door for an unknown man.

Be Aware from BWH Public Affairs on Vimeo.

“Closing a door to someone feels uncomfortable and impolite, and it contradicts what many of us have been taught from a young age,” McDonough said. “We need our staff to know the potentially dangerous consequences of enabling people who do not have permission to access restricted areas—whether consciously or unconsciously—and give them tools that empower them to take action.”

The two videos are the centerpiece of BWH’s safety campaign, but they are buttressed by a multi-pronged approach that includes the following:

  • Signage. The points where unauthorized access is most likely to occur, including some 1,200 card scanners throughout BWH’s facilities, will be labeled with signs to remind workers to be aware of who’s coming with them.
  • Reminder cards. Workers will be issued additional cards that bear the slogan “Stop, Challenge, Assist,” with a phone number for hospital security, as a reminder to use their privileged access with caution and care.
  • Policies. Employees who are followed by an unauthorized person are now required to abide by two updated policies: Either question the person directly, or contact security to do so. There’s no option to merely dismiss the unauthorized access as nonthreatening.
  • Training. After hospital employees screen the two videos, they will role-play related scenarios with a security team, then follow-up to session with a Q-and-A to discuss what they learned.

In addition to training its own staff, BWH has opted to share the components of this campaign far and wide—a helpful gesture, considering that tailgating and piggybacking are a safety consideration in every healthcare facility.

“People who work in the healthcare setting have a natural inclination to help others,” said Dave Corbin, BWH’s director of security and parking, in the statement. “Our campaign emphasizes that being aware is one of the best ways for them to ensure the wellbeing of patients, their families and each other.”

Don't Hold the Door from BWH Public Affairs on Vimeo.

Worker sleep cycles could be a safety concern

June 22nd, 2017 Email This Post Print This Post

When researchers asked nearly 180,000 workers about their sleeping habits a few years ago, they found that those in healthcare rank among the top occupational groups that sleep too little. About 40% of healthcare workers reported sleeping less than seven hours per night.

Nursing, psychiatric, and home health aides exhibited the highest rates of short sleep duration among healthcare professionals. More than 43% of them reported getting less than their recommended share of shuteye, according to research published by the CDC earlier this year. And those numbers could pose a potential safety risk at work.

“Workers in occupations where alternative shiftwork is common, such as production, healthcare, and some transportation jobs, were more likely to have a higher adjusted prevalence of short sleep duration,” study author Taylor M. Shockey, MPH, said in a press release.

“Short sleep duration has been linked to various negative health outcomes including cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression, as well as to safety issues related to drowsy driving and injuries,” Shockey added. “This research suggests that there are occupational differences in sleep duration making occupation an important factor to consider in sleep research and interventions.”

That’s why the National Safety Council featured fatigue among four key topics to highlight during June, which is National Safety Month, offering safety professionals and the public access to social media graphics and downloadable tip-sheets to promote awareness. (That’s also why the topic was featured in the April edition of HCPro’s Medical Environment Update.)

Workers who sleep between seven and 10 hours per night have shown significantly lower estimated annual injury rates than workers who sleep less. The results of one survey published in 2010 showed that workers who slept less than five hours per night suffered more than three times as many injuries as those who slept enough.

slide-15-FatiguePanel-presentation

Kim Olszewski, DNP, CRNP, COHN-S/CM, FAAOHN, vice president of Mid-State Occupational Health Services in Lewisburg, Pa., said employers are taking notice of the dangers fatigue can pose, Safety+Health magazine reported.

“The key is the proactive piece,” Olszewski said, “driving it from the top down, talking about fatigue, how it can be managed, how it impacts all aspects—not just work.”

Workplace violence citation settled, but debate rages on

June 19th, 2017 Email This Post Print This Post

One of the largest public hospitals in the country persuaded OSHA to back off of a citation it had issued regarding the hospital’s workplace violence prevention program, but debate over the program’s adequacy rages on.

Bergen Regional Medical Center (BRMC) in Paramus, N.J., pushed back against criticism from a former OSHA official who described the resolution of BRMC’s case as a “cave-in” by the Labor Department, as I mentioned last week. Since then, the former official has responded to the pushback—and discovered that the hospital’s attorney is readily willing to spar about it on Twitter.

Jordan Barab, who served as deputy assistant OSHA secretary during the Obama administration, responded in a blog Friday to BRMC’s claim that he must think “that even a single instance of workplace violence” means a facility’s prevention program is inadequate.

Not true,” Barab wrote, “and BRMC unfortunately had far more than a single case of workplace violence. In fact, the union reports that so far this year, 62 incidents have been reported to a workplace violence committee.”

Barab said he stands by his contention that the hospital, despite fending off the OSHA citation, has serious workplace violence problems. He mentioned the BRMC dispute Thursday evening in a tweet: “They hate me. They really hate me.”

That prompted a response Friday morning from Eric J. Conn, an attorney BRMC hired in 2015 to contest the OSHA citation. “Just want honesty,” Conn wrote. “Hospital PROVED it didn’t violate the law, yet Obama-era OSHA reps who weren’t there to see the proof still slander them.”

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Hospital calls criticism from former OSHA official ‘ill-informed commentary’

June 14th, 2017 Email This Post Print This Post

I came across an interesting (and lengthy) post last week on Jordan Barab’s “Confined Space” blog about a hospital that successfully defended itself against an OSHA citation. Barab, a former OSHA official himself, had some harsh words for Bergen Regional Medical Center (BRMC) in Paramus, N.J., going so far as to accuse BRMC of trying to revise history.

“[T]he hospital’s contention that its workplace violence prevention program ‘has once again been found to be compliant’ is false,” Barab wrote. He pointed to a written warning OSHA sent BRMC in 2014, followed by a citation in 2015, as evidence that the hospital’s program had been deemed inadequate under the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause.

Since the blog post accused BRMC of misrepresenting the facts, I reached out to hospital spokeswoman Donnalee Corrieri for her response. She noted that Barab had left OSHA before a key stage in the discovery process, so his opinions appear to be based on information as alleged in 2015, rather than the full picture as uncovered throughout months of litigation.

“After considering all of the evidence, which OSHA did not have the benefit of when it [made] its initial allegation, OSHA obviously concluded that the initial citation was misplaced, and agreed to withdraw the citation related to workplace violence in its entirety,” Corrieri told me in an email.

“Mr. Barab’s ill-informed commentary seems to stem from his view that even a single instance of workplace violence means an employer’s [workplace violence prevention program] is somehow insufficient,” Corrieri added. “However, OSHA’s [workplace violence] Guidelines for healthcare acknowledge that ‘not every incident can be prevented.’ The reality is, the Medical Center consistently experiences fewer incidents of violence than its peer medical systems in New Jersey and nationally.”

For more on this, read my article in this week’s free weekly Hospital Safety Insider e-newsletter.

Unions try to help defend OSHA rule; Labor Dept. objects

June 9th, 2017 Email This Post Print This Post

Defendant joins plaintiffs in opposing third-party motion to intervene

Two unions offered to help the U.S. Department of Labor defend an Obama-era OSHA rule being challenged in federal court. But the government has formally objected, arguing that the unions have no right to step into the legal dispute between it and private industry groups.

The move has stoked speculation that the Trump administration could be looking to further relax enforcement of existing regulations. That worries United Steelworkers (USW) and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

“In this case, there is no guarantee that the government will defend the New Rule forcefully in this Court,” the unions wrote in their March motion to intervene, noting that an executive order signed the month prior calls for a general reduction in federal regulation.

The rule in question, which was finalized last year, requires about 466,000 employers to file injury and illness logs with OSHA electronically, so the agency could then publish the data online. Industry groups filed multiple lawsuits, and federal officials said last month they would postpone a July 5 deadline indefinitely—a delay the unions likely saw as an omen.

“There is even the possibility that the new Administration might attempt to use this litigation as a vehicle to weaken, rather than to uphold, the New Rule,” the unions wrote in their March motion. That could be described as a “sue-and-settle” tactic to change the rule while bypassing certain procedural steps typically required for such changes, they said.

Government attorneys responded by acknowledging the unions’ concern that the regulation could be softened or abolished.

“But that argument is a red herring,” the government wrote last month. “Any changes to the Rule would need to be made through the rulemaking process, not this litigation.”

The unions seemed pleased, though not totally placated, by the government’s commitment to traditional rulemaking channels.

“We are heartened to learn that OSHA accepts the fact that, under applicable law, any changes to the Rule can only be made following notice and comment rulemaking and not through this litigation,” the unions wrote in reply June 8. “But, the distinct possibility remains that OSHA’s defense of the Rule may not be as robust on some issues as on others.”

Randy Rabinowitz, an attorney representing the unions, told Bloomberg BNA that she could not recall any other case in which the Labor Department declined help from a union seeking to assist in defending an OSHA rule.

The unions made two parallel arguments in support of their motion to intervene: (1) they have a legal right to do so, and (2) the court has the discretion and should permit them to do so. The plaintiffs objected to both claims; the government objected only to the first claim and took no position on the second.

Judge David L. Russell of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma has given no indication of his timeline for a ruling on the motion.

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