52:0320(29)AR - - AFGE Local 2250 and VA Medical Center, Muskogee, OK - - 1996 FLRAdec AR - - v52 p320
[ v52 p320 ]
The decision of the Authority follows:
52 FLRA No. 29
FEDERAL LABOR RELATIONS AUTHORITY
AMERICAN FEDERATION OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
September 30, 1996
Before the Authority: Phyllis N. Segal, Chair; Tony Armendariz and Donald S. Wasserman, Members.
I. Statement of the Case
This matter is before the Authority on exceptions to an award of Arbitrator Harvey A. Nathan filed by the Union under section 7122(a) of the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute (the Statute) and part 2425 of the Authority's Regulations. The Agency did not file an opposition to the Union's exceptions.
The Arbitrator denied, in part, a grievance seeking environmental differential pay (EDP) for certain bargaining unit employees. For the following reasons, we conclude that the Union has provided no basis for finding the award deficient. Accordingly, we deny the Union's exceptions.
II. Background and Arbitrator's Award
The Union filed a grievance alleging that certain Boiler Room employees exposed to airborne concentrations of asbestos were entitled to EDP. The Agency denied the grievance and the matter was submitted to arbitration. The Arbitrator framed the issue as follows:
1. Did the [Agency] properly deny the Union's request for [EDP] for those employees working in the Boiler Plant?
2. If not, what is the appropriate remedy?
Award at 2.
The Arbitrator reviewed Articles 3, 24, and 25 of the parties' agreement, which incorporated Federal Personnel Manual (FPM) Supplement 532-1 and Appendix J,(1) and also reviewed Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) Circular 00-88-6, entitled "Management, Abatement, and Removal of Asbestos in VA Facilities."(2) The Arbitrator rejected the Union's argument that any measure of asbestos in the workplace entitles employees to EDP. Noting that Article 25 speaks of "'unusually severe hazard, physical hardship or working condition[,]'" the Arbitrator stated that "while the presence of any degree of asbestos poses a potential risk, the burden is on the Union to demonstrate that the amount of asbestos at issue poses an 'unusually severe' situation. Id. at 13 (emphasis in original). The Arbitrator found that the "only reasonable standard for the measurement of Article 25 of the [parties'] agreement is the standard set out in DVA Circular 00-88-6, as amended, which provides that employees shall not be exposed to airborne concentrations of asbestos in excess of OSHA's action limit of 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter." Id. at 14.
Applying this standard, the Arbitrator found that there was no sustained exposure to asbestos above the stated limit. However, he also found that there were isolated occasions when employees were temporarily exposed to unacceptable limits of asbestos and that the Agency violated its regulations and the parties' agreement by failing to provide EDP for exposure on these occasions. In particular, he determined that the Agency improperly denied EDP for employees working in the Boiler Plant on those days when they worked with boiler gaskets, and on February 3-6, 1995, during and after a general clean-up of the Boiler Room.
III. Union's Exceptions
The Union asserts that the Arbitrator's use of the OSHA standard for awarding EDP is contrary to law and regulation, specifically, 5 U.S.C. § 5545(d)(3) and FPM Supplement 532-1, Subchapter S-8, Appendix J, Category 16. According to the Union, any measurable presence of asbestos entitles employees to EDP. The Union relies on previous arbitration awards involving the parties and also asserts that the award is contrary to the Authority's decision in Allen Park Veterans Administration Medical Center and American Federation of Government Employees, Local 933, 34 FLRA 1091 (1990) (Allen Park).
Additionally, the Union contends that the Arbitrator erred in stating that the Union has the burden to demonstrate that the amount of asbestos at issue poses an unusually severe situation.
IV. Analysis and Conclusions
A. The Award Is Not Contrary to Law and Regulation
In circumstances where a party's exceptions involve an award's consistency with law, we must review the question of law raised by the arbitrator's award and the party's exceptions de novo. National Treasury Employees Union, Chapter 24 and U.S. Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, 50 FLRA 330, 332 (1995) (citing U.S. Customs Service v. FLRA, 43 F.3d 682, 686-87 (D.C. Cir. 1994).
The Authority has consistently held that the specific work situations for which EDP is payable under the FPM Supplement, Appendix J are left to local determination, including arbitration. E.g., American Federation of Government Employees, Local 2144 and U.S. Department of the Air Force, 51 FLRA 834, 838 (1996). Thus, when the parties submit a grievance to arbitration involving exposure to asbestos, the arbitrator has the authority to resolve a dispute over what quantitative level of exposure to airborne concentrations of asbestos exposes employees to potential illness and injury and how that level is derived. Id. at 838. Of course, in making local determinations regarding the specific work situations for which EDP is payable, the parties could negotiate, consistent with law and regulation, the quantitative level of asbestos exposure that would be used in assessing employee entitlement to EDP. Id.
In this case, as there is no evidence that the parties negotiated such a standard, the Arbitrator did not err in applying the OSHA standard.(4) In this regard, the Union misinterprets the Authority's findings in Allen Park. Allen Park does not stand for the proposition that unless a threshold level of exposure to airborne asbestos is negotiated between the parties, a quantitative level of exposure cannot be applied. Rather, in Allen Park, the Authority held that in the absence of a mandated quantitative level set by applicable law or regulation or otherwise agreed to by the parties, the arbitrator has the authority to determine the threshold quantitative level of exposure for the payment of EDP. Moreover, the standard applied in Allen Park--that there is no permissible asbestos exposure level for the payment of EDP--was determined by the arbitrator based on the facts presented.
Also, the Union's reliance on other awards provides no basis for finding the award deficient. Arbitration awards are not precedential and, therefore, a contention that an award conflicts with other arbitration awards provides no basis for finding an award deficient. See American Federation of Government Employees, Local 1273 and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Boise, Idaho, 44 FLRA 707, 712 (1992).
Consequently, the Union's contention that the Arbitrator's adoption of the OSHA standard is contrary to law and regulation provides no basis for finding the award deficient.
B. The Arbitrator Did Not Erroneously Apply the Burden of Proof
We reject the Union's contention that the award is deficient on the ground that the Arbitrator erred in stating that the Union has the burden to demonstrate that the amount of asbestos at issue poses an unusually severe situation. If a standard of proof is set forth in law, rule, regulation, or a collective bargaining agreement, an arbitrator's failure to apply the prescribed standard will constitute a basis for finding the award deficient as contrary to law, rule, regulation, or as failing to draw its essence from the agreement. U.S. Department of Navy, Navy Public Works Center, San Diego, California and National Association of Government Employees, Local R12-35, 49 FLRA 553, 558 (1994). However, in the absence of a specified standard of proof, arbitrators have the authority to establish whatever standard they consider appropriate, and the Authority will not find an award deficient because a party claims that an incorrect standard was used. Id. Moreover, unless otherwise prov