New Workplace Safety Commissioner Ready to Jump Into Case Backlog

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By Lars-Eric Hedberg

Jim Sullivan, the newest member of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, got his start in labor and employment law four decades ago by way of a distinct accomplishment on his resume.

He formed the first lifeguard union in Ocean City, N.J.—something that Fred D’Angelo, a partner in Cozen O’Connor’s Philadelphia office, noticed.

“I was looking for something to distinguish him from the other candidates,” D’Angelo told Bloomberg Environment. “He organized the lifeguards and negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement with the city, and the union still exists to this day.”

So D’Angelo hired Sullivan, who proceeded from there to work in private and in-house practice representing employers in a range of labor, occupational safety and health, and wage disputes.

Now as one of three members on the commission, Sullivan is interested in chemical safety cases and cases that are factually out of the ordinary, he told Bloomberg Environment in an interview at the review commission offices in Washington. The commission is an independent federal agency that reviews contested workplace citations and penalties.

Jim Sullivan, the newest commissioner on the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, has spent nearly four decades working in law.

‘Biggest Issue Out There’

As to the law, expect fidelity to the Occupational Safety and Health Act in his rulings, he said.

“What’s going to interest me are cases where over the years the department has expanded the scope of the statute in a way that may be supported by the law or not,” Sullivan said. “I view my role as making decisions that help to effectuate the purposes of the statute,” which is to “enforce safety and health compliance among employers.”

He called the resolution of workplace violence cases “the biggest issue out there.”

“We have a big case coming up that will probably be heard in November—Integra Health,” Sullivan said. In that case, a review commission administrative law judge upheld a citation and $10,500 in penalties that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued to Integra Health for failing to provide a safe workplace after a man with a history of violent behavior and mental illness stabbed and killed a worker.

“The case particularly interests me because the citation was issued under the general duty clause” of the act, Sullivan said. The clause, which is something of a catch-all, requires employers to provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious harm.” The clause doesn’t address how employers are expected to handle workplace violence.

On his last day in office under the Obama administration, former OSHA administrator David Michaels granted a petition to begin looking at a rule setting a protocol to prevent workplace violence. But federal OSHA hasn’t touched it since.

Has ‘Lived in This World’

Sullivan and his wife, Terry, who’s from Washington, seem at ease here as he begins his new role. And a panoply of sports networks ensures Sullivan, the former Penn State cheerleader and occasional mascot, can follow Nittany Lion football this fall.

Sullivan, who was most recently a partner at Cozen O’Connor in Philadelphia, said his past professional relationships and experiences make him comfortable at the review commission and within the OSHA bar.

“I’m not coming in like a political appointee who hasn’t lived in this world for a long time,” said Sullivan, who credits the American Bar Association’s Occupational Safety and Health Law Committee for many contacts and friends in the field.

He also had stints at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC and as vice-president of labor and employment law and deputy general counsel for Comcast.

After Sullivan graduated from Georgetown Law in 1980, he began his career at Pepper Hamilton in Philadelphia representing finish contractors and a shipyard—the now closed Sun Shipbuilding, one of the last shipyards in the Mid-Atlantic area.

‘Entire Industry Crabs Along’

Through an arrangement with the Interior Finish Contractors Association, Sullivan also took on carpenters and glaziers as clients. “As part of their membership, if they received a citation, they got a free referral to me, and the association would pay for representation through the contest period,” Sullivan said.

An early call stuck with Sullivan.

“A guy called me up one time and said he got cited for not locking a scaffold when he was installing a drop ceiling. He was supposed to crawl down, unlock and move the scaffold, lock it and crawl back up,” Sullivan recalled.

“And I said, ‘Well that’s a violation.’ And the guy replied that nobody does it, the entire industry crabs along.”

Sullivan told the guy that he couldn’t argue it was infeasible just because no one else was complying with the standard. “He asked me what he should do, and I said, ‘Drop a dime on your competitors,” Sullivan said.

If He Could Change One Thing ...

The review commission is acting at full strength for the first time since 2015 after two of the commissioners’ terms expired. Sullivan said it shouldn’t have been shorthanded in the first place.

“We should have five members on this commission” rather than three, in light of a lack of a full complement of members over the past two years. “When someone’s commission term expires they should stay on until replaced so the commission can continue to make decisions.”

You’ll have to ask Chairman Heather MacDougall where the review commission—which also includes member Cynthia Attwood—will start with the backlog of cases, Sullivan said. More than two dozen need the review commission’s attention.

“She’s leading the way, but we’re getting through them,” he said. “She’s pushing to get through these faster.”

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