While catastrophes and fatal accidents are obvious inspection triggers, almost half of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Admini- stration) visitations are complaint-driven. Therefore, the best way to avoid an inspection-and potential fines and penalties-is to eliminate complaints by employing preventive measures, including:
. Participate in an OSHA voluntary compliance program.
. Ensure that potentially serious or willful regulatory violations are identified and aggressively eliminated. Regular safety and compliance inspections by knowledgeable personnel provide a mechanism for hazard identification and demonstrate a company's commitment to safety. Employee involvement in inspections, safety committees and safety program development can enhance effectiveness exponentially and provide viable internal alternatives to employee complaints to OSHA.
. Provide proper training and implement an effective safety program. If limited resources and staff are available to focus on this area, consider outsourcing some aspects of compliance and enable utility safety professionals to focus on providing a safer working environment. Outsourcing partners can provide training, MSDS obtainment, chemical inventory management and classification, compliance reporting, emergency response to spills, poisonings and exposures and even transportation services.
If an OSHA inspector does arrive at your facility, here's what you can expect. The compliance officer will explain the scope of the inspection and the purpose and standards. If applicable, the officer will provide a copy of the employee complaint (with the employee's identity concealed). The employer will then be asked to select a representative to accompany the compliance officer during the inspection. An authorized representative of the employees, such as a union steward, also has the right to attend.
A methodical inspection of the facility will ensue, with the destination and duration to be determined by the compliance officer. During the course of the inspection, the inspector will typically ask to see required written programs, training records, evidence of certification (where required), chemical inventories (if applicable), MSDS, and OSHA 300 Log. The inspector may request copies of these and other documents, which the company is obliged to supply. It is critical, therefore, to know where these documents are kept and to keep them in good order.
The compliance officer can also consult with a reasonable number of employees, and may do so privately if desired. They will be informed that OSHA prohibits discrimination in any form by employers against workers because of anything they say or show the compliance officer during the inspection.
During these interviews, employees can be asked a series of questions related to the complaint or general questions about their understanding of the safety program. Questions might include the employees' safety orientation, specific job training, safety meeting occurrence, understanding of safety rules, what they have been trained to do in case of an accident or emergency, and whether they feel their job function is safe.
During the closing conference, the inspector will discuss all non-compliant conditions identified and violations. The company will have the opportunity to produce records that show compliance efforts or that will assist OSHA in determining the time needed for abatement of the hazards.
PRICE OF NON-COMPLIANCE
If the company is found to be non-compliant, it must post a copy of each citation at or near the place in which the violation occurred for three days or until the violation is abated, whichever is longer.
Furthermore, a range of potential citations and penalties is possible. Determined by the OSHA area director, citation categories and associated penalties range from "de minimis," where penalties are unlikely, to "criminal willful," which can be punished by a $250,000 fine for an individual or a $500,000 fine if the employer is a corporation (for a first violation), and up to six months imprisonment in the event of a related employee death.
While OSHA has six months to decide whether to issue a citation, the company alleged to have committed the violation has only 15 working days to contest the violation in writing. The company must declare whether it contests the citation itself, the proposed penalty, the abatement date or all of the above.
Contesting a citation leads to two significant results. First, assuming that the basis of the citation or the assessed abatement period is contested, the letter of contest freezes the clock until the case is resolved (unless OSHA declares the cause of the citation to pose an imminent danger to employees). Secondly, contesting a citation moves the final resolution of the case into the hands of an administrative law judge.
There are other costs of non-compliance, however, as companies found to be in violation by OSHA can face several daunting longer-term challenges. For example, from an employee standpoint, a non-compliance action from OSHA confirms suspicions that their workplace is not necessarily safe and that management is not actively involved with safety, creating more distrust and potentially sparking additional complaints. Also, OSHA violations are publicly available and can create a poor company image. ip
Michael Beckel, is 3E Company's Manager of Consulting Services. He is a member of the SCHC's OSHA Alliance working group and the American Society for Safety Engineers. For more information, visit www.3ecompany.com