5 ways your company can avoid costly OSHA citations
A workplace inspection by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration may not be avoidable, but your company can avoid costly OSHA citations. The best way to do this is by:
- Ensuring regulatory compliance;
- Conducting hazard assessments and safety audits, and correcting any hazards found;
- Developing and implementing a written safety and health program;
- Training employees to protect them from safety hazards; and
- Keeping accurate records.
An OSHA inspector’s primary task during an inspection is very simple: to find non-compliance issues. If the inspector doesn’t find any, he or she won’t issue a citation. If violations are found, the officer can choose to expand the scope of the inspection. Therefore, it is paramount that employers identify the requirements that apply to their workplaces.
Also, stay abreast of regulatory changes. Being compliant now doesn’t mean a company will always be compliant. Regulations and policies change, and new ones are issued.
OSHA has increased rulemaking activity by issuing several proposed and final rules over the last four years. The most recent final rule of significance was the Walking-Working Surfaces rule, which includes major fall protection, training, and inspection changes affecting every employer.
Conducting routine hazard assessments is an excellent way to find hazards in the workplace before OSHA does. Focus on the “Big Four” — falls, electrocutions, caught-in or between, and struck by. OSHA is placing increased focus on these hazards, which are the leading causes of fatalities. In the past, OSHA focused on these hazards only in the construction industry, but now the agency is targeting these four hazards in general industry, as well.
If an OSHA compliance officer finds that an employer has an otherwise good safety and health program, the officer will focus mainly on these four hazard areas.
Safety and health program
The benefits of developing and implementing a safety and health program are varied and many, but perhaps the greatest benefit is reducing injuries and illnesses.
OSHA says that businesses spend $170 billion per year on costs associated with occupational injuries and illnesses, which comes straight out of company profits. Workplaces that establish a safety and health program can reduce their injury and illness costs by 20% to 40%, and better yet, reduce their likelihood of being inspected by OSHA.
If not done already, establish a written injury and illness prevention program that outlines the hazards in the facility and how they are controlled. This is another way to “find and fix” hazards before OSHA finds them. It is also an eligibility requirement for receiving the “good faith” penalty reduction if cited by OSHA.
Ensure employees are trained for the tasks that they perform. OSHA compliance officers are now verifying not only that required training has been conducted, but that the training was provided in a format that workers could understand in terms of both the language and vocabulary that is used. OSHA says that employers are expected to realize that if they customarily need to communicate work instructions or other workplace information to employees at a certain vocabulary level or in a language other than English, they will also need to provide safety and health training to employees in the same manner.
For example, if employees are not literate, telling them to read training materials would not satisfy an employer’s training obligation. There cannot be any barriers or impediments to understanding. If this means that an employer must provide training in other languages, then that is what has to be done.
OSHA says that if a reasonable person would conclude that necessary training had not been conveyed to employees in a manner they were capable of understanding, then the violation may be cited as serious.
One of the first things an OSHA compliance officer will do during an inspection is review records. Obviously, keeping accurate records is another way to avoid an OSHA citation. Very importantly, focus on injury and illness records. The agency is fervent about ensuring employers are not underreporting, and routinely issues citations specifically related to improperly recording injuries and illnesses.
Remember, if your industry as a whole has fewer injuries and illnesses, your company and your industry will be less likely to be targeted by OSHA for an inspection.
While an alert and competent workforce is the constant “real-time” protection against accidents and injuries, hazards can be and are missed. That is why inspections are an important last line of defense, and are even required by OSHA in many instances. They provide a clear and concentrated focus on potential problems.
Inspections are typically done by walking around a facility and focusing on a particular safety issue, such as machine guarding, fire extinguishers, chemical storage, forklifts, etc. Through the inspection, employers are able to specifically determine whether or not OSHA requirements have been met. The goal of any inspection should be to find any and all deficiencies and get them corrected before they lead to an incident or an inspection by OSHA. This ensures ongoing safety compliance because there is a constant check for problems in the workplace.
For these reasons, OSHA may view inspections favorably. A thorough inspection with proper follow-up can signal that a company is, again, making a good faith effort to comply with applicable regulatory requirements.
An OSHA inspection can be a scary prospect, and employers often have many questions; however, the three most important questions that employers need to ask themselves to determine if they really are prepared for an OSHA inspection are as follows:
- Will we be targeted for an OSHA inspection? OSHA is, indeed, inspecting as many facilities as they can. Be aware of what the agency is focused on with regard to enforcement and regulatory changes so you’re not surprised by a knock on your door.
- Do you know what to do if you do receive a knock on the door? The compliance officer will be spending quality time in your facility, and you need to be prepared when he or she asks to see your records, conducts the walk-through, and discusses potential citations.
- Do you maintain a safe and healthy workplace? Ensure you’re compliant with applicable regulations, establish a safety and health program, conduct hazard assessments, train employees, perform self-inspections, and keep accurate records.
If you can’t answer these questions with confidence, you may not be as prepared for an inspection as you’d like, and the chances of a citation increase. This can quickly become very expensive. OSHA is routinely issuing fines in the tens of thousands of dollars. Prepare now to avoid a costly citation later.
Jennifer Stroschein is an editor with J. J. Keller & Associates. She specializes in workplace safety topics such as fall protection and eye protection, and is the editor of J. J. Keller’s Safety Management Today newsletter and its Workplace Inspections & Audits manual. For more information, visit www.jjkeller.com/osha and www.jjkellerlibrary.com.
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