Essential steps to avoid new, higher OSHA fines

If you’re currently unprepared for an OSHA inspection, now is a great time to get your house in order. OSHA has increased its fines by 78 percent due to legislation requiring federal agencies to adjust for inflation.

Before August 2016, the maximum non-repeated penalty was $7,000 per violation. Now, the maximum fine is $12,471. For willful or repeated violations, it has increased from $70,000 to $124,709.

Receiving an OSHA violation has never been a badge of honor, but the new risk of larger fines makes it even less desirable.

Here’s a breakdown of what you can do in preparation for, during and after an OSHA inspector shows up at your door.

1. Preparing for the inspection

It’s extremely important for you to be heavily involved in the inspection prep process. Don’t just turn your staff loose to do it all on their own. If you don’t have a safety program in place already or your current program is lacking, this is your chance to make your mark.

Your first order of business: schedule weekly safety meetings.

Here are a few things you need to focus on during the meetings.

  • Bolster your safety program. Quiz your staff with unexpected questions OSHA inspectors may ask and make sure safety and training records are readily available.
  • Create a daily safety checklist and decide who will be in charge of completing it.
  • Select the employees who will be interacting with the OSHA representatives when they arrive. Avoid picking your company know-it-all or an argumentative type. These types of people may volunteer too much information or even pick a fight with the inspector if things aren’t going well. There are many duties, so your representation could be one person or several.

2. Opening the inspection

When an OSHA inspector arrives at your facility, ask him or her, “What is the objective of the inspection?”

This is important because inspections triggered by a complaint are limited to the area in question.

The inspector will typically give you one hour to prepare for the walk-through. Use this precious time to alert your staff and get everything in order using your safety checklist. Be careful, exceeding the hour time limit will provoke the inspector’s curiosity.

Once your facility is ready, ask your appointed representatives to accompany the inspector. Make sure they ask the inspector to wear appropriate safety protection equipment.

3. Managing the inspection

Your people should be taking notes of anything the inspector mentions as an unsafe condition in case you need to contest a questionable citation.

The inspector may take photographs of something that attracts his or her attention. Your representative may want to take a photo at the same time as the inspector for post-inspection clarity. Be sure to have your representative ask the inspector what grabbed his or her attention in this case. Your representative should be answering questions truthfully, yet not volunteer any extra information. If he or she doesn’t know the answer to something, train him or her to say “I don’t know.”

It’s common for OSHA inspectors to do a random sample of private employee interviews. In establishments where there is a union, employees may choose to have a union representative with them during the interview.

If your team’s preparation is sufficient, this part of the process should go smoothly.

4. Closing the inspection

During the closing conference, an OSHA inspector will discuss any conditions he or she felt were unsafe during the inspection. This could result in a citation.

If the inspector issues a citation, politely discuss (using the notes and photos your representative took during the walk-through) why you may feel a condition is safe.

For example, an OSHA inspector may have observed an unguarded bench grinder that doesn’t meet OSHA’s machine guarding requirements. But you know that the particular bench grinder has not been in use or is out of service. Tell the inspector that you quickly removed it from the floor during the walk-through because the machine is inactive. Explain that there was no employee exposure to the machine. Be extra careful not to admit to any item being unsafe (remain neutral).

Keep in mind, the OSHA inspector has a section under the “closing conference” area of his or her report for “any unusual conditions or negative employer attitude.” So, remain polite with regard to any comments so the inspector doesn’t leave any notes on attitude-related issues.

Your company can negotiate to have citations withdrawn and penalties reduced or to get extended payment plans. You have 15 working days to contest a citation. Before this period expires, you may request an informal conference with OSHA to negotiate any concerns you have with the citation.

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