A U.S. District Court judge has thrown out a warrant obtained by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to inspect the Mar-Jac poultry plant in Gainesville for worker-safety violations.
The ruling, handed down last week by Senior U.S. District Judge William C. O’Kelley, is a blow to OSHA’s new Regional Emphasis Program unveiled last fall as a way to improve worker safety in poultry plants through outreach, education and increased inspections of production operations.
The REP was the basis for OSHA’s intention to inspect up to 16 areas of inquiry beyond an initial accident investigation that began in February when an on-the-job injury left a Mar-Jac worker with third-degree burns on the hands and face.
The agency believed it had “reasonable suspicion” of safety violations and inadequate recordkeeping.
In 2015, for example, court records indicate that Mar-Jac workers reported at least 25 musculoskeletal injuries, six injuries after being struck by hazards, seven slips, trips or falls, and 10 eye injuries from biological hazards.
OSHA also believed that numerous workplace hazards, including “dozens of injuries ... and above average rates in an already high-hazard field with documented instances of underreporting constitutes ‘enough injuries’ for probable cause.”
But the court has now ruled that OSHA does not have the authority to expand its unannounced inspection under the framework of the REP laid out in its arguments.
An expanded inspection cannot be based only on an employee complaint or report of an injury, the court ruled, and injury logs did not support a reasonable suspicion of additional violations because employers are not required to detail the cause of an injury or illness.
The court is concerned that upholding the warrant could violate the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure and “become tools of harassment.”