Outside Study Praises OSHRC Dispute Resolution Program

It requires settlement talks in cases where employers face high penalties.

The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission recently released an independent study that examined its dispute resolution program, which requires settlement talks in cases where employers face $100,000 or more in proposed penalties. The authors said the program is successful and OSHRC "has done an admirable job addressing an increased caseload within constrained resources while at the same time meeting the expectations of its external stakeholders."

The study, "Dispute Resolution in the Administrative Process: Evaluation of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission Settlement Part Program," was performed by alternative dispute resolution experts at Indiana University School of Public & Environmental Affairs.

OSHRC Chairman Thomasina Rogers credited the agency's administrative law judges' work on Settlement Part cases at a time when the OSHRC caseload has increased almost 50 percent: "Our judges, under the leadership of Chief Judge Covette Rooney, have done an exemplary job in making this alternative dispute resolution program successful," she said. "The herculean effort of our judges and a well-functioning Settlement Part have made it possible for OSHRC to handle its burgeoning caseload in a responsible manner. Settlement Part encourages parties to resolve their OSHA disputes in a faster, mutually agreeable, and cost-saving manner, while hastening abatement of potentially hazardous conditions."

The Settlement Part began in 1999 as a pilot project and was made permanent after an earlier evaluation by Indiana University; the commission revised some of the rules for it in 2005. It requires employers who receive safety or health citations that include proposed penalties of $100,000 or more to participate in formal settlement talks at which an ALJ presides. If settlement efforts fail, a different judge hears the case. Settlement conferences must be attended by officials with the authority to settle, and information and documents shared during the negotiations are confidential and protected from later disclosure unless all parties agree. Because employers who contest workplace safety citations aren't required to correct allegedly unsafe conditions until OSHRC issues a final decision, settlement often results in geting workplace hazards corrected faster, according to the commission.

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