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What To Do When (And Before) OSHA Comes Knocking

Whether you have, haven’t or think you never will cross an OSHA inspection, you don’t want to run your shop in a manner that will get you fined, in trouble, and could cause your employees an accident due to an unsafe working environment.

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Knock. Knock. Knock. You open your shop door to see OSHA inspectors have paid you an unannounced visit. Your heart rate picks up. Your stomach is in your throat. Your brain is racing with thoughts – What could be the matter? Am I up to code on safety? What happens if they find something? Can I refuse to let them in? But then what? How does this inspection thing work anyway?

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All of these nervous reactions are understandable – and can be easily avoided. Most of you with an engine shop or machine shop have probably never had an OSHA visit, and maybe you never will. However, there are shops out there with experience dealing with OSHA inspectors. Whether you have, haven’t or think you never will cross an OSHA inspection, you don’t want to run your shop in a manner that will get you fined, in trouble, and could cause your employees an accident due to an unsafe working environment.

What follows is a recount of some OSHA inspections and advice for what you should be doing before OSHA ever shows up at your shop.

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The Art of the Inspection

For those of you who think you’ll never have an OSHA visit, one plant manager had gone 20 years before OSHA showed up at his facility one day.

Another manufacturer had OSHA show up for a targeted inspection specifically for explosive dust. At the time, it was a new thing OSHA was on the lookout for and this facility was targeted for it.

Another inspection disclosed to Engine Builder concerned amputations. OSHA wanted to look at presses, rotating parts, fans and things such as that. They were looking for two-handed operation to prevent press operators from getting their hands caught in a machine.

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There are two reasons OSHA shows up, you always have the right to ask them why they are there. Inspectors will show up if you have received a specific complaint or are on the list for a targeted inspection. The first typically would come from an employee, and the second stems from OSHA’s own set of standards and new issues year after year.

According to one plant manager, “you have the ability to not allow OSHA inspectors through your door without a warrant to do so. However, this may not be advised, because you just make them upset. On the other hand, there are some inspectors who have reputations for being strict, and if those certain inspectors show up at your door, you’ll want to make them get a warrant because you’ll need the time.

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“Those circumstances aside, if you know in your heart that everything you’re doing at your shop is yielding desired results and it’s a safe place, why would you risk pissing the inspector off by making him get a warrant and coming back. It’s just going to set a bad tone for the inspection, but maybe not.”

Some of you shop owners may have had the dream, or nightmare, of OSHA inspectors showing up at your door. Ninety-nine percent of the game is making sure you have a safe place for your employees to work everyday. That really heads off a lot of problems when they do show up if you’re doing everything in a good faith effort to provide your employees with a safe place to work.

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OSHA is going to look at the guy in charge to see if there is any blatant disregard for the safety of his employees. They’re going to review everything – safety programs, training, the facility itself, and cleanliness. In the first 10 minutes, OSHA knows if they are in a good place or a bad place.

Select a Point Person

According to those who have dealt with inspections, the most critical thing is to have a point person who will deal with OSHA. You want to have someone who is well versed and can answer questions and take them through the facility for the inspection.

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Once OSHA has come to your shop, find your point person and keep OSHA at the front of your building. The first thing you want to do is ask them for their credentials. Most of the time they already have it out for you. You want to establish who in the world that person is and if they belong here.Have them sign in and ask for business cards. If you’re part of a more corporate operation, make sure you notify corporate offices the moment OSHA shows up. You want to call somebody to tell them OSHA is here so others know.

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Another fear is not whether OSHA shows up, but what happens if they show up and your point person isn’t there? Who is going to fill that person’s shoes? The inspection is going to happen regardless of who is there or not there. Make sure you log information for this type of scenario so others know what to do in case the point person isn’t around.

Limit the Inspection Scope

Once you figure out the scope of why OSHA is there, the route you take is important. If it’s a small shop you’re not going to have much of a route. But when you have 5 acres to cover, you want to take them on a route so they will only see the specific items they want to see. According to those who have experienced an OSHA inspection, OSHA will be looking to the left, right, up and down, and anything they see outside the scope of where you’re taking them and what they’re looking for could be flagged and you’re liable for those things.

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Once you know what they want to see, make sure you’re thinking about the best, most-direct route to see what they need to, and then bring them back off the floor. The last thing you want to do is simply allow the inspectors to meander around the plant.

It is very helpful to be respectful, cooperative and responsive to the things that they do find. Treat the inspectors with respect. You’re going to lead them through the inspection. Don’t let them lead you through and meander all over the place. Limit the scope to their request. The last thing you want to do is open yourself up for a wall-to-wall inspection.

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One plant manager has done that when OSHA asked if they could see all of the facility’s fans. The plant had fans all over the place – on poles, ceilings, personal fans, etc. – and taking the inspector to see them all would essentially be walking the whole plant. So the plant manager asked what the benefit was of doing a wall-to-wall inspection. A full wall-to-wall inspection gives you immunity from inspection for two or three years unless OSHA receives a specific complaint.

Looking back, that plant manager wouldn’t have done that a second time. It takes all day and it’s hard to keep inspectors from meandering around when you’re covering the entire space. The best advice is to limit the scope of the inspection to why OSHA is there.

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Take Notes

Whoever the point person is needs to take massive notes. Write down literally everything the inspectors are telling you. OSHA will take a lot of pictures. When they take pictures, you better be taking pictures so you’re not missing anything they could potentially be writing up about the visit. This is important so you can abate it right then and there depending on the issue. For example, if a knockout is missing you can take a picture of the issue and have it fixed and then take a picture of the fix right in front of them.

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Some things you’re not going to be able to fix right while they are standing there, but if it is simple, fix it while they are standing there and abate it. That doesn’t mean they won’t still write you up for unsafe conditions, but you’ll at least have it fixed already.

Someone needs to take the time to document what to do if OSHA shows up. Make a checklist of things to make sure you do. That will help clear your head during that situation. Guys are in the shop all day and they work there all day and you have blinders on most of the time.

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Make sure you put together a safety manual, do self inspections monthly and quarterly with different criteria. You basically self-audit your facility. Be proactive when it comes to safety so that your standard is as such that if OSHA walks in, you’re not fearful of inspection.

OSHA is ultimately after safety. They want your employees to come to work, work in a safe environment and go home injury free. We all want that. So spend the time and money to make your shop safe for employees and when you see something unsafe, fix it.

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The Aftermath

If OSHA finds something you’re not complying with you’ll receive a written letter with everything they find and a dollar value associated with each issue. These letters are time sensitive and need to be answered. This is where your notes and pictures come in handy. You can look back at those pictures with an issue and fix them, and then take another picture after the issue is fixed. Make sure you also make a note of the date you made the fix.

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From the moment OSHA leaves, you should spend the time necessary to fix the issues they see. When you get the letter from OSHA, there are four ways to answer the letter, which they go over with you.

No. 1: If they see there is no blatant disregard for employee safety they may offer you an expedited informal settlement agreement. Whatever your fines are, you could take 30 percent off of the published fines on the paperwork, but this is not offered to everyone.

No. 2: You can pay any fines as stated.

No. 3: You can request an informal conference. According to one manager, this is like show and tell. You’ll go to the nearest OSHA branch office and basically plead your case. If you’ve fixed everything they made note of and you believe the fines are too much following the inspection, you can defend your honor. If you show that you have corrected everything, typically you can abate a lot of the things that were on your list, and your fine can be dropped tremendously by asking for an informal conference. If you do have fines, it’s advised that you always ask for an informal conference.

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No. 4: You can contest the findings and go to court.

Another important thing to keep tabs on and stay up to date with is an OSHA 300 log. You’re required by law to have an OSHA 300 log where you list any accidents that have happened at your facility. This is very important, and OSHA inspectors will ask for it. That needs to be kept up-to-date, and typically OSHA will ask for 3 years of records.

Those of you with smaller shops may not know what an OSHA 300 log is. You’ll get this from OSHA and submit your list at the end of the year.

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There is undoubtedly an ‘oh crap feeling’ and a sense of uneasiness that comes with the scenario of an OSHA inspection. If you follow the advice from those who have experience and keep up on your shop safety standards, your heart, brain, bank account, and most importantly, your employees, will thank you.

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