The witching hour is upon us, and SHRM’s legal blogger Allen Smith highlights some of the spooky liabilities employers can court with typical workplace Halloween events:
Take an employer that set up a haunted house on its premises in a town that did not have one. The Midwest-based financial services company thought that it was being altruistic, but because of the haunted house’s poor design, a chainsaw-wielding accountant dressed up as Jason Voorhees from the “Friday the 13th” horror movies chased an intern into a wall and she broke her nose. If a company is not in the business of running haunted houses, it should think twice before setting one up, cautioned Philippe Weiss, managing director of Seyfarth Shaw at Work in Chicago.
Even if no one is injured, Halloween events at work are sometimes so over the top that they lead to bad public relations. … Costumes can also pose safety risks at work, so costume guidelines may be in order. In manufacturing settings, there’s a risk of injuries from long flowing costumes, said John McLafferty, an attorney with Day Pitney in Boston.
Halloween events, particularly costume parties, run risks from the perspective of diversity and inclusion as well. As Fortune’s Ellen McGirt observes, some people take their Halloween costumes well beyond the bounds of sensible taste, and are still showing up to work events dressed to offend colleagues and customers:
Responding to concerns from the US Chamber of Commerce that its previous reporting standards were unfair to employers, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration has decided to reduce the amount of information it publicizes about fatalities in American workplaces, the Wall Street Journal reports:
The publication of the reports—listing the names, locations, employers and circumstances of people who were reported to OSHA as having died in apparent accidents at work—began early in the Obama administration. Before that, OSHA did compile some information about fatalities, according to former OSHA officials. But they said Obama administration officials made the reports more publicized and included additional information.
Last week, OSHA removed links to reports going back to 2009 from its website. Instead, the agency posted a more limited set of information about U.S. workplace fatalities that resulted in citations for companies dating back to the beginning of the year. An OSHA spokeswoman said the new fatality-data listing respects the privacy of surviving family members because they don’t give out the name of the worker who died.
The Chamber of Commerce and other business groups had objected to the Obama-era administration’s approach on the grounds that publicizing the details of workplace accidents before they could be investigated risked unfairly tainting companies with reputations as unsafe places to work.
A new report from the RAND Corporation details the findings of the American Working Conditions Survey (AWCS), a wide-ranging survey fielded in 2015 by RAND in conjunction with scholars from Harvard Medical School and UCLA that paints a troubling picture of the state of the American workplace as “very physically and emotionally taxing, both for workers themselves and their families.” Some of the key findings include:
- The clear majority of Americans (eight out of ten) have steady and predictable work throughout the year, but many fewer work the same number of hours on a day-to-day basis (54 percent).
- Nearly three-fourths of Americans report either intense or repetitive physical exertion on the job at least one-quarter of the time.
- More than one-half of Americans report exposure to unpleasant and potentially hazardous working conditions.
- Nearly one in five American workers are exposed to a hostile or threatening social environment at work.
- Most Americans (two-thirds) frequently work at high speeds or under tight deadlines, and one in four perceives that they have too little time to do their job.
Furthermore, only 38 percent said their job offered good prospects for advancement. On the bright side, however, 58 percent of respondents described their boss as supportive, 56 percent said they had very good friends at work, and four out of five said their job met at least one definition of “meaningful” most of the time. Large majorities said their jobs involved solving unforeseen problems, applying their own ideas, engaging in complex tasks, and learning new things.
In a press release, RAND goes into more detail about what these findings mean for the US workforce:
Presentation of Employee Monitoring Tech at Microsoft Build 2017 (Brian Smale/Microsoft)
Build, Microsoft’s annual developer conference taking place in Seattle this week, is focusing heavily this year on AI and machine learning, and how the company plans to embed these technologies in the workplace of the near future. Wednesday’s keynote demonstrations showcased what Mark Sullivan at Fast Company calls “a vision of the workplace of the future where workers are surrounded by all manner of cameras, sensors, and other recording devices connected to internet-based AI services”:
Microsoft showed demos and videos of the “intelligent edge” in a variety of forms, in a variety of use cases, and in a variety of industries:
- A heart patient was walking around wearing a sensor. He began to get tired, so the sensor sent that data up to the cloud for processing, and a nurse was notified to bring him a wheelchair.
- A camera detected an employee accidentally tipping over a barrel containing a dangerous chemical, information it sent up to image-recognition software in the cloud. Some other database likely helped determine that the liquid in the barrel was hazardous. Presumably an alarm was sent to a cleanup team.
- An employee in a shop was spotted taking a selfie while brandishing a jackhammer. The brain in the cloud recognized the employee, the activity, and the setting and concluded he was behaving recklessly, then contacted a supervisor.
- Someone else in a shop was seen not wearing safety goggles. Alarm. Supervisor notified.
All this involves some sophisticated, on-the-fly AI. In the words of the presenter demoing the intelligent edge developer tools at Build: “The solution is running more than 27 million recognitions per second across people, objects, and activities.” But the use cases Microsoft showed onstage sound equal parts helpful and intrusive. Sure, getting a heart patient back to bed or detecting a dangerous chemical spill are health-promoting. But the notifications to the supervisor suggest a completely different, and possibly unintended, consequence of the technology.
“There is benevolent surveillance and then there is just surveillance,” Sullivan worries, “and the Microsoft technology could work in both scenarios.” But CEO Satya Nadella spent part of his time on the Build stage Wednesday dispelling the notion that Microsoft is out to turn the workplace into a surveillance state:
Olivier Le Queinec/Shutterstock
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is one of many US federal agencies whose regulatory agenda is expected to shrink considerably under the Trump administration, after having introduced new rules and stepped up enforcement activities during the Obama administration. Now, Barry Meier and Danielle Ivory write in a New York Times feature, OSHA is still actively enforcing safety regulations, but the Labor Department has stopped publicizing the fines the administration issues to violators since President Donald Trump took office in January. Advocates of stronger workplace safety regulations see this is a step toward loosening OSHA regulations, or loosening their enforcement:
“The reason you do news releases is to influence other employers” to clean up their acts, said David Michaels, who was an administrator of [OSHA] during much of the Obama administration.
As part of a new rule issued in May by the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, employers are now forbidden from discriminating against employees for reporting a work-related injury or illness, and are required to inform employees of their right to report without fear of retaliation. Enforcement of this rule was supposed to begin in August, but was delayed once to give employers time to better understand the rule and how to comply, and again after a number of business groups sued to have the rule blocked.
As Steven Hurd describes at the National Law Review, the federal judge hearing the case declined on Tuesday to issue a preliminary injunction, opening the way for the rule to be enforced as scheduled starting today, December 1:
The plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction of part of the anti-retaliation provision of the OSHA rule, claiming that the final rule unlawfully limited certain employer safety incentive programs and drug testing programs.
The court denied the motion, concluding that the plaintiffs had failed to show that they would suffer irreparable harm if the anti-retaliation rule took effect before the court had ruled on the merits. The court concluded by noting: “That the court has denied injunctive relief requested by Plaintiffs is not a comment or indication as to whether Defendants will ultimately prevail on the merits. This determination is left for another day.” Thus, the court will consider at a later date the plaintiffs’ substantive challenge to the anti-retaliation rule.
SHRM’s Lisa Nagele-Piazza notes that, like many other rules issued by the Labor Department over the past two years, this one may or may not survive the upcoming presidential transition:
Recent research by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control has indicated that prescription opioid abuse, dependence, and overdoses cost the US economy nearly $80 billion in 2013. Opioid misuse can cost employers nearly $20,000 in average annual medical expenses, especially since one in three prescriptions provided under employer health care plans is being abused, according to research from the health-care firm Castlight Health. Castlight also found that painkiller abuse is four times more likely among baby boomers, and that the epidemic is particularly bad in the rural south. Indiana is another hotspot for the epidemic, where 80 percent of employers report being affected by the problem.
One Indiana company, the engine manufacturer Cummins Inc., has tried to tackle the issue head-on since discovering evidence of opioid misuse among its workforce in 2013. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Rachel Emma Silverman reports, they got both aggressive and proactive in their approach: The company, which employs 55,000 people, added opioids to the panel of drugs it tests employees for, but has sought to be flexible in its response to positive tests, since painkillers are most often legally prescribed and aren’t abused by a majority of workers. If an employee tests positive for opioids, they are directed to treatment if needed, as well as moved out of any safety-sensitive jobs in the company. And the company’s efforts don’t end there, as Silverman explains: