In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is the regulatory body charged with reducing the risk of injury in the workplace. The agency responds when multiple injuries or deaths occur, while also routinely inspecting companies to see if there are hazards that can cause injuries.
OSHA is tasked with improving safety at businesses with a single employee, on up to thousands of workers. Its inspectors have been monitoring workplace environments since 1970, performing outreach to help employers enhance safety and enforcing regulations when violations are found.
“Our job is to remove hazards from the workplace,” said William Fulcher, OSHA’s Atlanta East Area Director.
Companies should take a number of steps to accomplish that goal, Fulcher said in a recent Webcast. They are required to follow relevant standards and find safety hazards, then correct them.
Managers must also ensure that workers are aware of potential problems and know how to avoid injury. Employers must inform employees about chemical hazards and provide required personal safety equipment at no cost, to name a few requirements.
Companies must also post injury information and OSHA posters. If citations are given, notices must be posted in that area so employees know about issues. If workers report problems, management cannot discriminate against them.
Inspections are one of the primary tools in OSHA’s tool belt. Fulcher provided ways for companies to respond to inspections.
That begins with confirming that the inspector is an OSHA employee, a step that’s especially important in surprise inspections. Managers have the right to ask officers why they are at the site and what they want to inspect, as well as why they’re there. He noted that OSHA has heard of people who represent themselves as agents who then find problems and offer to sell products that can resolve the problem.
“That will never occur,” Fulcher said. “Our agents do not sell anything.”
Whether an OSHA agent shows up for a scheduled or unscheduled inspection, companies should begin by designating one person to work with the OSHA compliance officer. That will help eliminate confusion that can occur when several people know about isolated aspects of the visit. That employee should ask the officer why he’s here, what’s being inspected and whether the on-site survey is a programmed inspection or there has been a complaint. Fulcher encourages companies and agents to communicate freely.
“In all interactions, be sure you are being honest and forthright,” he said. “We’ll have a meeting every day or every other day. At the end of the inspection, we will have a meeting to explain what we’ve found.”
Whether they agree with the findings or not, companies need to be sure to respond to them. OHSA regulations have force of law, so action must be taken. Inspectors aren’t likely to forget about violations.
“If you don’t respond to explain how you’ve fixed issues after an OSHA inspection, we will definitely come back and do a follow-up inspection,” Fulcher said.
If a citation is delivered, the inspector will provide paperwork that includes a date for fixing the issues. Companies then have a few options. If managers don’t agree with the findings, they have 15 days to appeal.
“That clock is very important,” Fulcher said. “After that time, no changes to citation can be made. That 15 days is your time to negotiate anything you’d like: whether the violation is valid, whether the penalties are fair, and the amount of time to get hazards fixed. Sometimes things can be changed so we can work together to get things fixed.”
Companies also have the option to notify agency of plans to contest citation. When a citation is contested, it will end up being litigated. Sometimes that will culminate when both parties go to court.
Managers often ask how much citations will cost. OSHA will tell companies the maximum penalties for violations, though Fulcher noted those fines can often be negotiated.
When citations are classified as “other than serious/serious,” a $7,000 fee will be levied. The fees rise dramatically when companies have repeat violations, soaring to $70,000. That’s the same fee handed out for “willful” violations.
The fines are designed to encourage companies to mitigate all safety hazards found by OSHA inspectors. Failure to abate results in a $7,000 per day assessment.
Fulcher explained that these maximum penalties can often be mitigated. Based on the size of employer, fees be can reduced by up to 60% for smaller companies. When a program review shows that companies are responding with good faith, reductions can range up to 25%. Similarly, companies with good histories can negotiate reductions from 0-10%.
Fulcher also explained that companies have several resources that can help them remove hazards before they’re found by OSHA inspectors. Insurance companies typically have experts who can do inspections and help their customers reduce problems. Third parties companies can also be hired to perform similar site surveys.
OSHA also provides free on-site consultation for small businesses with under 250 employees at a site or less than 500 nationwide. Consultations won’t result in penalties or citations, Fulcher explained. OSHA makes 30,000 of these visits per year.
Corporate employees can also take courses that will train them to recognize issues and understand how to correct them before anyone gets hurt. Some of these courses are provided by universities. Fulcher noted that some courses are also attended by OSHA’s compliance personnel.
He also addressed the trend of employing temporary workers, who are often hired to do dirty, dangerous jobs other people don’t want to do.
“We want those workers to be just as safe as if worked full time jobs,” Fulcher said. Both staffing agencies and employers are responsible for employees while they are on a worksite, he added.
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