When OSHA Comes to Visit
How to handle a surprise inspection by OSHA, and why being prepared is your best line of defense.
Unfortunately, not every visitor who walks through the front door of your shop will be there to spend money on a print order. In fact, one visitor may cost you thousands of dollars if you aren’t prepared. When a compliance officer from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) shows up at your shop, it can only mean your shop is about to be inspected. And that, in turn, means it will not be a normal day.
Let’s look at what happened to a printer we’ll call My Print Shop, located in Anywhere USA. A young man walked into the reception area, showed his credentials to the receptionist, and announced that he was a compliance officer from OSHA and needed to inspect the facility. The receptionist immediately contacted Jim Smith, vice-president of operations, who met the visitor politely and tried to mask his growing alarm.
The OSHA inspector told Jim that his visit was a programmed inspection that had been prompted as a result of the printing industry being listed in OSHA’s National Emphasis Program (NEP) for the prevention of amputations. Jim thought about a disgruntled worker from his finishing department who had recently left, wondered if the visit might be connected, and fought a brief impulse not to cooperate with the inspection.
The visit began with a short discussion of the inspection process and its scope, which would include a tour of the facility with a focus on production operations. The inspector mentioned that in addition to seeing the shop’s safety records, he would also need to inspect the presses and some finishing equipment, such as guillotine cutters, because they were specific targets of the NEP program. The tour began, and as the inspector took pictures of the equipment and facility, Jim began to wonder if his records were current. He realized that over the years, his company had neglected too much and was far from being compliant with all of its written safety programs.
As the inspection progressed, the OSHA inspector asked to see specific safety documents. He asked for the written lockout/tagout procedures, OSHA 300 logs, hazard assessments for personal protective equipment (PPE), and employee training programs, such as the Right to Know program required by OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard. He also asked to talk to the production supervisor and a few press operators privately in the company’s conference room. The inspector was at the facility for about 4-5 hours, but it felt longer to Jim.
Before the inspector left, he sat down with Jim to go over his preliminary findings and discuss the next steps. He said that based on his inspection, he would be submitting 11 citations, most categorized as serious, with a potential total penalty of $34,100. Jim would learn the final citations and penalties later when he received an official Citation and Notice of Penalty from the Area OSHA Office. The inspector left and Jim retreated to his office.
The decision points
All OSHA inspections typically follow this same sequence of events. When compliance officers arrive at your facility, they are required to identify themselves and present their photo identification, which can be verified. In our example, Jim had two choices when the inspector arrived—either let him into the facility or deny him access. Tempting as it may be, denying access to an OSHA inspector is not always a sound strategy. The inspector can, and will, return with the necessary papers that allow him to inspect your entire facility. The logical choice is to cooperate.
Next, the inspector will have an opening conference to explain the initial reason for the inspection and describe its scope. Jim was told that the visit was prompted by an initiative that applied to the entire printing industry. Be aware that an inspector may visit your facility for many reasons. A complaint from an employee, past or present, may lead to an inspection. An inspector might simply decide to stop as he is driving by your facility. Whatever the reason, give the inspector the chance to explain it to you. If the inspection was prompted by an employee complaint, you're entitled to a copy, but not the name of the complainant.
The main portion of an OSHA inspection, of course, is the facility review, or walk-through. The inspector may ask to see your entire operation or just specific departments or types of equipment. As an employer, it’s your right to have a company representative accompany the OSHA inspector throughout the walk-through, as Jim did.
Usually at the beginning of the inspection process, but definitely at some point during the visit, the inspector will examine your injury and illness records. The inspector will usually ask for the past five years of your OSHA 300 logs and other associated injury and illness records, including the incident reports (Form 301) and summaries (Form 300A). The inspector may also ask for any written safety programs and training records that are required under the various OSHA regulations.
Jim’s biggest oversight was failing to maintain and document My Print Shop’s compliance efforts and procedures. This is vital for every printing business. Sooner or later, an OSHA inspector will visit your facility and ask to see your paperwork. Inspectors who look further into your business at the equipment and work practices can easily turn up more violations. Poor procedures and documentation will make it extremely difficult to challenge them, as Jim would soon learn.
Inspectors can and usually do conduct employee interviews covering a variety of topics including safety training programs, how safety initiatives are communicated, and safety concerns among employees at the facility. These interviews are considered confidential for the employee. You can’t demand to be included in them, although employees have the right to request additional people to be present if they wish. Depending on the scope and type of inspection, the inspector may do these interviews during the facility review or afterward, including outside of the workplace if the employee agrees.
At the end of the on-site inspection, the inspector will perform a closing conference with you as the main contact of your company, although anyone can participate. The purpose of the closing conference is to discuss the preliminary findings and possible violations, as well as available courses of action that can be taken, your rights as the employer, and how to contest any citations and/or penalties that may be issued.
Jim received the Citation and Notice of Penalty from the Area OSHA Office a few days after the inspection. He quickly saw that three of the 11 citations involved lockout/tagout procedures for one of his presses. The assumption behind the citations was that certain operations, such as screen cleaning during a print run, should not be performed with the power to the machine engaged. Jim knew it would be impractical and unnecessary to cut the power supply to the press each time a screen needed to be cleaned, and requested an informal conference to contest these citations.
In fact, the press was equipped and configured in manner that provided a sufficient level of safety to the operator. What Jim didn’t know was that OSHA has an exception to lockout/tagout procedures for the printing industry that allows for minor service and maintenance to printing equipment. The inspector didn’t know this either, and it should have been noted in Jim’s safety documentation. If an inspector doesn’t understand an operation or piece of equipment, he will have nothing more to rely on than OSHA’s standard regulations and will apply lockout/tagout requirements to minor service activities that would otherwise be exempt. But even though the mistake was made by the OSHA inspector, it’s up to the owner/operator of the facility to prove that the citation was issued in error. Since Jim wasn’t fully aware of this, he didn’t have the right information to show he was in compliance at the time of the inspection.
Both the OSHA area director and the inspector were present at the informal conference. Because Jim had little information to support his argument against the citations, it was an overwhelming experience for him and it didn’t turn out well for his business. The resulting settlement was costly, not just in the penalties that were assessed but also the resources needed to pull together the required safety programs and training to abate the violations in a short amount of time.
Developing and maintaining a safety compliance strategy is the key to avoiding costly mistakes and ensuring that you are better prepared for an OSHA inspection than Jim was. Managing safe work practices through an effective compliance plan will help you minimize potential violations as well as effectively prepare for an inspection when it occurs. The key is preparation that allows you, as the facility owner, to manage the inspection process by being in compliance and having the information to prove it.
The first step is developing and implementing an effective and complete compliance program that meets all applicable OSHA regulations. A good starting point is conducting a comprehensive internal safety and health audit. This allows you to evaluate your facility to determine which OSHA regulations are applicable to you and whether or not you meet the requirements spelled out by those regulations, as well as identifying any deficiencies. Assigning the right personnel in your company to handle this effort or hiring outside help will be critical in the success of the programs you develop. Getting everyone on board with the importance of safety makes this effort easier and more manageable.
OSHA inspectors look for the tips of the iceberg and then dig deeper. Performing a structured audit follows a similar approach, allowing you to begin identifying the more obvious deficiencies. Begin this internal review by department or operation and break down the tasks by:
- Production activities, which deal with equipment, machines, and chemicals
- Facility, meaning the building structure and the grounds
- Employee work practices, which address how employees perform their assigned tasks and the training they need
When you find patterns emerging within the assessment (which is common), you can simply apply the findings to similar issues found elsewhere in the company rather than repeating the entire assessment.
A critical element of your internal evaluation is reviewing the required written safety programs and employee training requirements. Written programs are required for your Hazard Communication, Lockout/Tagout, Emergency Evacuation, Fire Prevention, and Occupational Noise Exposure plans. Additionally, programs covering the use of forklifts and personal protective equipment are required, as well as Right to Know training. As we previously mentioned, the inspector has the option to interview your employees, which can be a wild card if you haven’t conducted the necessary training because you’ll have no idea what the employees will say. Ensuring that all training is complete can eliminate this risk.
In addition, you should take a look at the chemicals you use. Have any employees complained about the air quality in your shop? Left unaddressed, complaints can trigger employee health issues as well as an OSHA inspection. As a facility owner, you should quickly address these concerns through an effective indoor air testing program.
Other commonly overlooked items in the OSHA standards include:
- Medical Records Access Statement
- Minor Service and Maintenance Procedures within the Lockout/Tagout Program
- Bloodborne Pathogens programs
- Electrical Safety-Related Work Practices
- Medical Evaluation for Hearing Conservation Programs
- General Housekeeping
- Propane Tanks (Forklifts)
- Maintenance of Shop Equipment
Your compliance program, including all written programs and employee training, is your proof of what applies to your company. And, it is just as important to be able to explain why you made the decisions you did. An OSHA inspector can have a different opinion and you need to know how to defend the determinations you made.
Depending on the type of inspection, having the right records can be the difference between answering a simple question and receiving a citation. During any OSHA inspection, focus on what the compliance officers want to see and answer their questions satisfactorily. It’s not always easy if you’re preoccupied with thoughts about whether you have the necessary records for compliance. Remember that having all of the necessary programs in place doesn’t mean you won’t be inspected. What counts is what you can offer the inspectors when they come.
Because of OSHA’s programmed inspections and its growing familiarity with the printing industry, your facility will most likely be inspected someday. If you prepare ahead of time and maintain your compliance requirements, you’ll make your inspection less traumatic and less costly.