Cure OSHA-phobia

Knowing what to expect can ease anxiety over inspections.

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The mere mention of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can send shivers down an employer's spine. Because it can fine businesses, and even close them down for violating safety regulations, many live in fear of receiving an OSHA inspection.

But like most fears, OSHA anxiety is based on a lack of helpful information, indicates Benjamin Mangan, president and founder of MANCOMM and American Safety Training, Inc. His companies work together to develop and provide OSHA compliance safety products and training.

"Employers can obtain regulation information on-line, but it's not very user-friendly," Mangan says. "We translate those regulations using a graphical approach to make them easier to read and understand."

This is important since safety awareness and knowledge of OSHA regulations and the inspection process can help you feel more secure in the event of an inspection. "Every company's management needs to set up an up to date safety plan and observe OSHA regulations applicable to their industry," says Mangan. "But sometimes even companies with good safety records receive inspections, so it is important to plan ahead for such occurrences."

What OSHA does and why

Basically, OSHA writes and enforces regulations that require employers to maintain conditions or adopt practices to protect workers on the job. Compliance with these regulations comes in three forms: education, consultation and enforcement.

Education means the employer learns the regulations and how to comply with them. Through consultation, the employer can request an OSHA visit to help identify possible violations. Enforcement can arrive in the form of a work-site inspection performed by a compliance officer authorized to cite the employer for violations.

Knowing the reasons for inspections, as well as employer rights, inspection preparation information and inspection procedures can prove helpful if your company ever faces an inspection. It's also important to remember that you have the right to deny entry and request a warrant. You also have the right to allow certain areas of the site or facility to be inspected without a warrant.

The following information from the American Safety Training course, "Essentials of Safety Training I", highlights some of the reasons for OSHA inspections:

  1. Imminent danger — Conditions or practices exist which could reasonably be expected to cause serious physical harm or immediate death to employees.
  2. Fatality/catastrophe investigations — An employee death or the hospitalization of three or more employees, resulting from an accident or illness, is caused by or related to a workplace hazard. Such incidents must be reported to OSHA within eight hours.
  3. Complaints/referrals investigations — Notice of an alleged hazard or violation is given by a past or present employee, an employee representative, a concerned citizen or some other source.
  4. Programmed inspections — These work-site inspections are scheduled based upon objective or neutral selection criteria.

Inspection preparation

"Essentials of Safety Training I" suggests keeping an inspection kit on hand in case an inspection is scheduled. The kit should contain:

  • paper or pens for documentation
  • tape recorder, tapes and batteries, as well as a disposable camera and film, for documentation
  • flashlight to shed light on nooks and crannies
  • tape measure for measurements
  • tote bag to carry inspection materials
  • information on the locations of air-quality and noise monitoring equipment (if your company does not perform these forms of monitoring, contact a subcontractor)
  • any other items specific to your company

The kit should also contain a "who to call" list for when an inspector appears. "Inspectors can wait up to 45 minutes for a specific company official to show up," says Mangan. "The kit should also include extra Exit signs and Danger: Do Not Use tags. Be willing to fix problems on the spot, if possible."

What to expect

The process of an OSHA inspection can be overwhelming, but it's really not that complicated. Following are some guidelines on what you can expect and how you should proceed.

Inspection procedures — Employers should develop procedures for contact personnel to follow in the event of an inspection, encourages Mangan. Lead the inspector to a waiting area while company officials are notified of his or her arrival. If the company has a union, the representative must be permitted to be involved in the inspection.

Centralize all pertinent information, such as training documents and 300 Logs for injuries and illnesses, for easy accessibility. Sources of confidential or proprietary information should be identified to the inspector. Otherwise, the information will become public record.

Opening conference — Ask the inspector to explain why your business was selected for inspection. Insist on seeing credentials, establish whether the inspector has a warrant and determine which documents the inspector wishes to review.

Walk-through inspection — The inspector, accompanied by the employee (if applicable) and employer representatives, will proceed through the facility, inspecting work areas for potentially hazardous working conditions. Do not allow the inspector to conduct the walk-through alone.

The inspector will discuss possible corrective actions. Take notes on what is seen and discussed, what samples and/or pictures are taken and what documents are reviewed.

Closing conference — After the walk-through, the OSHA inspector will discuss all hazardous conditions with the employer, indicating all citations that may be recommended. Make sure he or she explains the appeal rights and procedures for contesting citations, and informs you of obligations regarding any citations issued. Employers should provide additional relevant information and request a receipt for any documents provided.

Do not make admissions of guilt, and do not argue your case with the inspector. Also know your Miranda Rights and keep answers to a simple "yes" or "no."

"Ultimately, all employers want to avoid citations and costly fines, and the best defense is to be compliant with OSHA regulations," says Mangan.

Observing regulations and maintaining a superior safety record also has other benefits. "When workers stay safe and healthy," he notes, "businesses experience lower workers' compensation costs, reduced medical expenditures and increasedproductivity. A well-developed safety program is an investment that always pays off in the long run."