12 mistakes employers make when an OSHA inspector knocks unexpectedly

Even well-prepared employers can panic when an OSHA inspector arrives unexpectedly at the door. Why are they here and are we really prepared?

While the chances of an inspection are small (there are about 8,000,000 workplaces and OSHA and its State Plans average about 73,000 annually), advance notice is rare. In fact, Compliance Safety & Health Officers (CSHO) are prohibited by law from providing employers with advanced notice of pending inspections, with limited exceptions (see p. 3-3 of field operations manual).

Employers who are ill-prepared for an inspection and make bad decisions during an inspection face unwelcome and costly fines. Even well-prepared employers find it difficult to escape an inspection without a citation – there is a 75% chance that at least one violation will be found.

Here are 12 mistakes commonly made by employers:

  1. Refuse to let OSHA enter the worksite. While most inspections are surprises, many experts and former inspectors advise against requiring a warrant. This is likely to bring enhanced scrutiny and create an adversarial tone. A cooperative attitude is important; however, this is a good time to negotiate the limit and scope of the inspection.
  2. Fail to consider the personality of the employee designated to meet with and accompany the inspector. While it’s critical the employee be knowledgeable and intimately familiar with the operations and safety policies of the business, personality and attitude play a major role. Someone who is defensive, arrogant, or a know-it-all is likely to irritate the CSHO. The inspector’s report includes a place to note lack of cooperation. And don’t designate someone who loves to talk and tell how wonderful the company is. It’s going to fall on deaf ears and they probably will volunteer too much information. Best to designate someone who is polite, professional, can stay focused, and who is confident and willing to ask questions.
  3. Don’t have a backup for the designated employee. Inspectors will wait a “reasonable” amount of time – usually a half hour to an hour. While that might be a good opportunity to correct some small hazards and tidy up housekeeping, delaying the inspection will be noted on the form and it’s unlikely anything you do in that time is going to make a significant difference.
  4. Fail to limit the scope of the inspection. This is perhaps most important. Employers have a right to know the purpose of the inspection and to have a “reasonable inspection” at a “reasonable time.” Employers should insist on an opening conference when the CSHO explains the reason for the inspection and the employer can negotiate the scope. It’s also an opportunity to ask questions and to try to establish ground rules about how the inspection will proceed, including interviews, collection of documents, and the physical access to the facility.

    Some inspections, such as those under the Site-Specific Targeting Enforcement Program, can be wall-to-wall but most unprogrammed inspections can be limited. If the inspection was prompted by an employee complaint, the employer has a right to see the complaint and limit the inspection to related areas. If the CSHO is there to investigate an incident, take the most direct route to the site of the incident. Minimize exposure to the rest of the facility. Everything inspectors see is fair game for citations, such a missing handrails, poor housekeeping, improper signage, fire extinguishers, etc. If an officer tries to do a wall-to-wall inspection when there is a specific reason for the inspection, the employer should push back.

  5. Don’t know the criteria for emphasis program or compliance directive inspections. If there is a programmed inspection under an emphasis program or compliance directive, an employer can refuse, if they know they don’t fit the criteria.
  6. Don’t replicate the photos, videos, and notes the inspector makes. It’s important to escort the CSHO at all times and to mirror the actions of the inspector during the walkthrough. Take the same photos, videos, notes, measurements, sampling etc. so you have a clear record of what they captured. OSHA has a six-month statute of limitations to issue citations.
  7. Admit to violations. There may be violations pointed out during a walk through. For example, if an inspector points out an unguarded machine, say you will address it, but don’t admit the violation or try to go into a lengthy explanation of why it is not guarded.
  8. Don’t insist that document requests be in writing. At the opening conference, it’s best to agree that document requests, except OSHA Recordkeeping forms, be made in writing (it can be handwritten) so that there is no confusion over what documents are being requested and so that the employer is not cited for failure to produce a document it did not believe was requested. It is important to remember that the employer has no duty to produce certain documents (e.g., post-accident investigations, insurance audits, consultant reports, employee personnel information) if a regulation does not require such production. Any documents produced can be utilized to issue citations. If you don’t have the document, say so. Don’t rush to produce a new document.

    While not a comprehensive list, long-time OSHA employee and Area Director John Newquist recently published the “Scary 13” – documents employers can’t produce during an inspection – in The National Safety Council’s June Safety Health magazine.

  9. Don’t protect their trade secrets and business confidential information from disclosure to third parties. This is an employer’s right, but it is critical to keep a record and identify the documents as confidential.
  10. Don’t sit in on management interviews. A supervisor’s comments are imputed to the employer and, for this reason, employers have the right to and should be present and participate in interviews of management, regardless of whether the manager wants the representative there. That right does not exist with non-management employees, but it’s important for employees to know their rights about interviews and that they will not suffer adverse employment actions. While it’s important to be careful not to coerce, intimidate, or influence, employers can prepare employees for interviews. Also, the employer can request that “on floor” interviews be limited to five-minutes on production and processes. Employers should attempt to schedule more extensive interviews about training, background, etc. that should take place in a conference room with a table and chairs, but no white boards or documents present.
  11. Consider only the cost of the penalty. Employers have the critical right to contest OSHA’s citations, but some employers want to move on quickly, and consider only the monetary amount when deciding whether to contest, particularly when the cost is low. A recent webinar, Prepare for and Manage an OSHA Inspection by the Conn Maciel Carey law group, notes that there are several goals an employer should consider before accepting a citation, as well as strategies to reduce the impact. Accepting a citation can open the door to future, more costly repeat violations ($132,598), impact civil wrongful death or personal injury actions, affect bidding, harm customer and employee relationships, increase possibilities of being placed in the Severe Violators Enforcement Program, and affect insurance costs and coverage.
  12. Don’t immediately correct hazards, when possible. The closing conference usually takes place one to six weeks after the inspection. This is a good time to demonstrate cooperation by showing that hazards identified during the inspection have been corrected or abated.

For Cutting-Edge Strategies on Managing Risks and Slashing Insurance Costs visit www.StopBeingFrustrated.com

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