Article Archive
When OSHA Visits
Former OSHA inspector BevelHart recommends keeping close tabs during official visits by the feds
Volume 23, No. 1

An OSHA inspection can be a stressful, exhausting experience. Too often, management fails to reduce the risk of an adverse outcome by more fully participating in the inspection process, said industry consultant and former OSHA inspector Bevel Hart.

For example, if a complaint has been filed, inspectors must limit their investigation to the items addressed in that complaint. Should an inspector wander into areas of the operation not covered by the complaint, management has the right to call security and escort the inspector back to where he belongs.

"You don't have to fall down, roll over and play dead for an OSHA inspector," Hart said.

Hart addressed an Industrial Fire World Emergency Responder Conference & Exposition workshop in Baton Rouge, LA, on the topic "What the OSHA Person Will Ask and Why?"

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a division of the U.S. Department of Labor. OSHA ensures that employees adhere to the Labor Department's safety and health regulations. OSHA conducts workplace inspections to make certain that employers are complying with the standards and providing a safe workplace.

OSHA may visit unannounced in three general situations. One, it may make a routine inspection based on injury or illness rates at a facility. Two, OSHA may inspect a worksite after a major accident. And, three, OSHA may also inspect if a complaint has been made.

Three great lies get told whenever an OSHA inspector visits an industrial facility, Hartsaid "The first lie is when the plant manager shakes hands with the inspector and tells him 'I'm glad to meet you,'" Hart said.

"The next lie is when the inspector says 'I'm just here to help you,'" Hart said. "And the third great lie is when the shop steward tells the plant manager that he didn't say a thing when the inspector came by."

Hart encourages management to take a friendly attitude in dealing with OSHA, when possible. However, management is well within its rights to enforce limitations and restrictions in accordance with the type of inspection OSHA is conduction.

"You're never going to be bosom buddies," Hart said. "What management and the inspector think is a hazard may be two different things. In a lot of cases safety is a matter of opinion. You've got to take a standard that is written for everybody in the United States and apply it specifically to your industry and your particular situation."

The biggest mistake most plant managers make when OSHA arrives is not dealing with the inspector directly, he said. Top management, including the plant safety director, should be readily available to the inspector.

"Everybody you talk to at the plant says safety is the most important thing," Hart said. "But then the plant manager doesn't have time to talk to the OSHA inspector. If the plant manager is in charge of safety, what kind of impression does that give the inspector?"

If management chooses not to cooperate, the inspector's next step is to interview non-management personnel. That effectively cuts management out of the information loop. The smart move for management is to hold an open conference with OSHA at which all levels of plant operations is represented, including the union.

"The advantage is that management can keep good notes on all that is said," Hart said.

The key for management is to find out specifically why OSHA is visiting, he said. If it involves a complaint, it should be understood that the OSHA investigation is to address complaint items only. One way to enforce that restriction is to have the plant take all photographs and video required as evidence, not OSHA.

"The best way to do that is not have the OSHA investigator bring in a camera," Hart said. "At the end of the day you give them copies. If you take them digitally, download them. If you're using film, you keep the original negatives. Go through the copies with them to assure that nothing has been doctored."

Losing your temper when OSHA shows up unannounced is a luxury management personnel can not afford, Hart said. The advantage to being cordial is that it allows more time to contact and organize your staff in advance of the actual investigation.

"If you're having a fire and OSHA is responding to check your emergency response, you haven't got a lot of time to have a briefing," Hart said. "But if OSHA shows up for a routine inspection, then you've got plenty of time to have a nice opening conference and find out what's going on."

Never deny entrance to OSHA. However, a slight delay is not going to be enough to provoke an inspector to spend up to two days trying to obtain a search warrant. If some member of management key to the inspection is not available, simply and politely ask the inspector to come back later.

"Some inspectors might bluster and threaten a bit," Hart said. "Don't buy into that. You run your show and get things set up your way."

A smart manager gets to know all the people who have regulatory authority over the facility - Coast Guard, EPA, state authorities and OSHA. Learn who their supervisors are in case the immediate representative proves difficult to deal with on a personal level.

"What I did when I was an inspector is exert as much pressure as was exerted by the people on the other side," Hart said. "If they came on strong with me, then I came on strong with them. If they were nice and relaxed, I was the same."

Hart highly recommended participation in OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program. VPP is designed to help companies take a more proactive approach to occupational safety and health by providing a detailed roadmap that guides them on how to improve their safety and health management systems and meet VPP recognition criteria.

In the VPP, management, labor, and OSHA establish cooperative relationships at workplaces that have implemented a comprehensive safety and health management system. Approval into VPP is OSHA's official recognition of the outstanding efforts of employers and employees who have achieved exemplary occupational safety and health.

"It starts off as an awful lot of work, but I believe it is worthwhile," Hart said. "For one thing, program inspections are handled completely differently. The VPP inspection becomes your program inspection for all practical purposes. You don't have unannounced program inspections, and when a complaint comes in, it is referred to the plant's safety committee."

VPP provides an excellent information pipeline into regulatory channels at the regional and national levels, he said. Also, instead of an expensive citation when problems are found, the plant instead receives an action item giving management a limited amount of time to rectify the situation.

"If you're not in VPP and you're not trying to get in, what does that tell the OSHA inspector about your safety program?" Hart asked.


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