During my time working with managers in general industry and construction, the biggest fear they face from a regulatory standpoint is OSHA showing up unannounced. Hefty fines, plant shut-downs, and jail time are just a few of the things that drive this fear. These are the horror stories that are highly publicized in the media and in the fear-based marketing of safety services that attracts the highest attention from managers in the workforce. The truth is, OSHA visits are highly unlikely overall and if there are findings, OSHA frequently takes good-faith efforts into account when levying fines.
Just because a knock on the door by OSHA is unlikely does not make it impossible. There are a few surefire ways to earn a visit by a compliance officer. Though the plant closures, jail time, and crushing fines are only extreme cases, having an OSHA compliance officer onsite rarely bodes well for a company. Rarely do employers avoid fines altogether, and everything found during an inspection becomes a matter of public record; visible by customers, employees, and community leaders. It is best to stay ahead of OSHA and develop a solid compliance plan before having to control the damage of non-compliance.
Your employees have much more power than you think. That machine guard that Joe the assembly line worker complained about 6 months ago still hasn’t been repaired. Joe is fed-up, every time he brings a safety issue to his supervisor’s attention it falls on deaf ears. Maybe if Joe files a complaint with OSHA, his concerns will finally be recognized and fixed.
An employee complaint is the number one way to have OSHA come knocking. Employee complaints are taken very seriously by OSHA, as it is generally an indicator of bigger compliance issues at a company. OSHA gives priority to employee complaints and each one is investigated provided a clear violation of a standard is proven. Once onsite, if the compliance officer sees other violations of OSHA standards he/she is required to investigate further. One complaint can open a can of worms no company wants to deal with.
Companies can prevent employee complaints to OSHA by implementing a formal reporting process for safety hazards for their employees, but it doesn’t stop there. Employers should also give priority to correcting these hazards within a reasonable timeframe. Soliciting feedback on how to best correct the hazard by key stakeholders, widely communicating the hazard, and communicating what action was taken to correct the hazard creates a culture of trust between the company and its employees. This system fosters goodwill which prevents employees feeling compelled to complain to third-parties.
OSHA Report – Life, Limb, or Eyesight
In 2015, OSHA instituted an update to their reporting rule. Prior to this update, fatalities had to be reported to OSHA within 8-hours or in-patient hospitalizations of 3 or more employees within 24-hours. The most recent rule maintains the fatality reporting requirement, but adds that all work-related in-patient hospitalizations, amputations, or loss of eyes be reported to OSHA within 24-hours. These incidents are given higher priority than employee complaints as a hazard has come to fruition and severely injured or killed an employee. OSHA has taken the stance that in these events, intervention is warranted to protect the workers of the company. More than likely, you will see an OSHA compliance officer following a life, limb, or eyesight event.
Assessing the hazards of a company’s processes and machinery is important in preventing serious injury or loss of life. Once these hazards have been discovered and evaluated, the company must develop a clear plan for short-term and long-term hazard control. In the real world, shutting down a process or company is not realistic. Therefore, a short-term control should be put in place while the resources, time, and thought can be put to a long-term solution to eliminate or reduce the hazard.
If you are familiar with the Hierarchy of Controls, good short-term controls include administrative controls (signage, work rules, training) and personal protective equipment (gloves, hardhats, eyewear, fall protection). In the long-term, the hazard should either be eliminated (removed from the process altogether), substituted (replaced with a safer option), or isolated from workers (by means of engineering controls).
Employees can be valuable in helping a company evaluate the hazards in their processes. There is no better resource than the people who engage with the process each day to provide insight on what makes them feel unsafe. Inclusion of employees in hazard identification and correction leads to more creative solutions, enhanced focus, and establishes a partnership that the employees appreciate.
Be Wrong when a Compliance Officer Drives By
This will apply more for a construction operation than a general industry operation but can invite an OSHA inspection none-the-less. Construction is usually out in the open with no walls to conceal the ongoing OSHA violations. If a compliance officer sees employees in clear-and-present danger, he/she is required to investigate further. This type of inspection is the most surprising of all to managers and depending on the violation can lead to hefty fines.
Having capable supervisors and competent persons onsite during a construction project can help companies prevent being in violation of an OSHA regulation. Planning compliance into the project can also help ensure that the company’s expectations are carried out on-site.
Tying it all Together
No one wants to be in hot-water with regulatory authorities. Implementing compliance systems which encourage support and participation from employees is extremely important in keeping OSHA at bay. In fact, most of the required written OSHA programs have a requirement for employee participation. OSHA would not have included the requirements, if they were not proven to be effective.
Dave Knight is the founder of Orient Safety, an EHS consulting firm that helps EHS Professionals & their employers foster a workplace with a safe, engaged labor force that creates value for their customers and communities. To learn more about the services Orient Safety provides, visit us HERE. Connect with Orient Safety on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. You can also sign-up for our newsletter HERE. Just for reading this article, you have earned a free incident reporting app for your business HERE.