If an OSHA Inspector Comes Calling
One of the most nerve-wracking experiences in a manufacturing executive's career is when an Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) inspector shows up at the door and says something like: "We received a complaint, and we'd like to take a look around."
Fatal Accident Inspections
If there's a fatal industrial accident at a plant, OSHA will conduct an investigation within eight hours. The company should have at least one experienced employment lawyer on hand who can deal not only with OSHA, but also the police and the prosecutor's office. It may help to have an attorney sit in at meetings with concerned employees.
Part of the reason for the anxiety is that OSHA investigators don't give any notice and can be very secretive.
It's important to understand how OSHA conducts inspections, so you're better prepared to handle the situation in a way that minimizes your legal and financial exposure. Here are seven proactive measures you can take to help protect your company during an OSHA inquiry:
1. Put someone in charge of a possible inspection. You need a designated hitter who can respond intelligently and courteously to OSHA investigators. And you should have a back-up contact person ready in the event of vacations or days off.
2. Check credentials. If someone shows up at your workplace and claims to be from OSHA, don't automatically believe it. You obviously don't want strangers walking through your facility — whether you have trade secrets or just modern-day security concerns. If you aren't satisfied with the inspector's credentials, call the local office before letting him or her get past the waiting room.
3. Inquire what it's all about. Ask the inspector to tell you the area of concern and what OSHA is looking for before answering questions or giving a tour. Inspections are usually caused by complaints. While the inspector won't say who called, he or she will outline the issue. Less often, OSHA does programmed inspections based on North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes, and it's possible that your number just came up.
4. Don't demand a court order in most cases. The inspector won't have any trouble getting a court order quickly, and you're likely to antagonize the government if you ask for one. If you're uneasy, you might want to call and see if your attorney can come right away.
5. Keep the visit focused. Once you identify the problem, answer only the questions the inspector asks — don't volunteer additional information. And only show the inspector areas of your building that are affected. Avoid walking through the rest of the building if possible. This isn't to impair the agency. You're simply trying not to raise new issues that will expand the scope of the enforcement effort.
6. Do what OSHA does. If the inspector measures something and takes pictures, you should measure and take pictures of the same items. If the inspector does an air-quality study, bring in an expert as soon as possible — that day, preferably — to repeat the study. If you aren't armed with your own test data or photographs, it's hard to argue that the agency's determination is wrong. And it may be even more difficult to convince a jury that the testing is wrong.
7. Consider the alternatives. After an inspection, OSHA holds a closing conference. The inspector will outline the problems and tell you to expect correspondence from the agency. Citation notices and proposed penalties arrive shortly afterwards. There are rules you must follow in posting the citations in your workplace.
The penalties may seem small, but by paying them, you may trigger action from other government agencies. And if you don't change the way you do business, subsequent penalties are likely to increase dramatically. So what initially may seem like an expensive fight to prove your company's innocence can turn out to be the less-costly route in the long run. Consult with your human resources and legal advisors.
Important: OSHA gives 15 business days to contest a citation. Failure to meet deadlines can result in serious consequences.
Contact a legal advisor who specializes in employment law immediately if OSHA investigators show up at your facilities. Your attorney has experience dealing with OSHA investigators and can help you navigate the process.