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What to do when OSHA comes knocking

Published: Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

There are a couple of basic reasons OSHA will come knocking at your door:

• Response to an employee complaint to view the area of concern.

• Response to an employee complaint to view areas not related to the complaint.

• Programmed visits occur if your industry is considered high hazard.

Right now, OSHA is in the area and very visible. Programmed visits are on the rise since OSHA has a regional directive for Region 5 (that’s us) that announces in part:

“Region Wide initiative to reduce injuries and illnesses in the Primary Metal Industry through increased inspection presence.”

If you are unlucky enough to get visited, as the owner of the business you should do your best to stay in control during the visit. The first thing you need to do is to request an Opening Conference.

Ask the reason for the visit.  The inspection types are based upon a fatality or catastrophe; a general compliance inspection; or based on an employee complaint. 

If the inspection is due to an employee complaint, the employer should request a copy of the complaint. Although you have the right to see the complaint, the name of the employee will be withheld to prevent retaliation against the employee for reporting.  

Keep in mind that as a regulatory agency, the purpose of the visit is to find problems. Although they might offer suggestions, at the end of the day, OSHA has the ability to levy fines and usually does.  

Your next step is to select the member of management to accompany OSHA on their visit.

OSHA will want the highest company official at the time of the visit to accompany them. If the person assigned to safety is not at the facility, you do have the right to ask OSHA to return at a more convenient time. If OSHA refuses, you also have the right to ask for a subpoena (not recommended).

During the inspection, you have the right to block access to everything except the machine or area mentioned in the Opening Conference. This includes taking OSHA in through an entryway closest to the area or hanging sheets or screens over other areas.  

If OSHA takes pictures, you can ask for copies or take pictures yourself. Make sure to take notes as well regarding questions they are asking and answers you are giving.  

While at your facility, OSHA has the right to speak with your employees privately, and expect them to exercise this right.

OSHA will want to see a few things, so be prepared. Your written programs for Hazard Communication, Lockout Tagout, Fire Prevention and Emergency Response and Bloodborne Pathogens; and your PPE assessment. If applicable, your Respirator and Confined Space plans as well. They also will want to see minutes from at least two safety committee meetings and your 300 logs and 300A summaries for the past three years. 

Request a closing conference. In this conference, fines will be discussed and the negotiation process can begin. As hard as it might be, try to listen to what is said and offer to act (or find an alternative fix) on the suggestions given. OSHA has a job just as you do, and in the end, OSHA has the full force of the government behind them so the more attentive and open you are to their suggestions, the faster the process will be.   

At the end of the day, be prepared to open your wallet.  

You can negotiate fines down some in most instances to standardized amounts. If you are not happy with the levels of fines OSHA imposes remember that Congress sets the fine levels, so call your representative or senator.

• Karla Dobbeck is president of Human Resource Techniques Inc. Call 847-289-4504, or email karlad@hrtechniques.biz.

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