Preparing for an OSHA Inspection

March 1, 1997
Safety author Rick Kaletsky spells out the keys to handling an OSHA inspection successfully.

Inspections by federal and state OSHA have fallen in recent years as OSHA reinvention has stressed quality over quantity, but an average of 1,000 employers a week still receive a compliance inspection. Too often, employers are ill-prepared to face that inspection. Former OSHA assistant area director Rick Kaletsky says that doesn"t have to be the case.

"It may be difficult for a large establishment to undergo a wall-to-wall inspection and be in total compliance," he said, "but it is clear that the employer has the authority and ability to create and maintain a workplace that leaves little room for the citing of legal violations."

Some safety experts dispute the value of compliance, arguing that OSHA puts too much emphasis on physical conditions rather than management systems and employee behavior. Kaletsky, a Bethany, Conn.-based consultant and author of OSHA Inspections: Preparation and Response, (McGraw-Hill, 1997), asserts that compliance with OSHA standards and with OSHA"s Safety and Health Program Management Guidelines together form "a superb foundation for the protection of employees."

While agreeing that the employer "should go beyond providing safe and healthful conditions" to dealing with "attitude, training and motivation," Kaletsky cautioned that it is a mistake to ignore the impact of unsafe conditions.

For example, he cited the case of a young employee who had a number of fingers severed by an unguarded chain in an accident on a food processing machine. Kaletsky said there were a variety of things that could have happened to cause his hands to come in contact with the chain. Buttons or controls could have been near the unguarded chain. The aisle next to the machine might have been narrow. He might have been lubricating the chain while the machine was in operation (an unsafe practice). He could even have been shooing away a fly or knocking excess dough from the machine.

"Some were quick to blame him, call him "stupid," and rush to use the label "unsafe act,"" Kaletsky recalled. "Here"s the bottom line. This was not the case of an employee climbing over a guard, removing a guard, or performing a contortionist act to contact the danger area. The chain was unguarded -- period."

Comprehensive Program Needed

Being prepared for an OSHA inspection entails a long-term commitment to occupational safety and health, in Kaletsky"s view. While that commitment is not "commonplace," he says, it is not because companies necessarily are malicious or gambling that OSHA won"t show up. Many employers simply don"t understand the need for a comprehensive safety program or what to do about it.

For those who are gambling with safety, he points out, the costs of an injury, illness or even an incident are high. They include insurance, downtime, retraining, overtime, damaged product, loss of orders, accident investigation, lawsuits and "the big one -- the pain and suffering that can occur regardless of whether OSHA is involved and even regardless of whether there was a documentable violation."

If a company is inspected, Kaletsky warned, it should be prepared for the fact that the wielding of "OSHA"s legal power can be costly and unpleasant." Penalties can total tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in many cases. Even if a proposed penalty is cut substantially in a legal contest, he pointed out, "the cost of fighting OSHA can be staggering. Attorneys are expensive. Consultants aren"t inexpensive. The time it takes to fight an OSHA case can be substantial."

Since OSHA has the power to inspect a workplace "from top to bottom and inside and out," Kaletsky urges employers to prepare for such an inspection. An important step in that process is to have a complete set of the OSHA standards for reference. "Most but not all aspects of machine guarding, electrical safety, personal protective equipment and exit maintenance should be fairly evident," he said. However, the standards deal with a large number of special situations and details which no one can completely remember. Does the employer, Kaletsky asks as an example, know about the special requirements for guarding tumbling barrels, magnetic disconnects on mechanical power presses or anti-kickback devices for ripping wood? In addition to the OSHA standards, he urged employers to keep on hand relevant ANSI, NEC and NFPA standards, as well as manufacturers" literature.

Preparing for OSHA does not mean a slavish attention to just the OSHA standards, Kaletsky warns. Instead, companies should organize a continuing effort to predict how employees could sustain an injury or illness and then take steps to preclude or greatly reduce the chances of such things happening. He explains: "Seek compliance with the standards, but do not neglect to address situations that would be difficult to relate to specific OSHA standards."

Kaletsky recalled an inspection where he found a medium-size pedestal fan on top of a transformer. The fan was unsecured and its base jutted out beyond the front of the transformer. The blades were not guarded properly and the cord to the fan ran down and across a coat rack.

"You would be hard-pressed to find clear standards to address this mess. The blades were more than 7 feet above the floor. The OSHA standard relating to anchoring equipment is not really written for this type of situation," he noted, yet it was clear that if the cord was contacted in the wrong way, the fan could fall and either the impact of the fan or its blades could severely injure a person.

In rooting out hazards, Kaletsky added, employers should remember that injuries can occur in a split second and that OSHA violations are based not on time but on exposure. "Impeding access to an exit for two minutes can be a tragic mistake. Fire can"t tell time," he noted. "Operating a lathe or a grinder for a few seconds without wearing adequate eye protection can lead to blindness."

Elements of OS & H Program

"Occupational safety and health belongs to every employee of the company," Kaletsky writes in OSHA Inspections. "It must be the concern of everyone, regardless of job title, position in the hierarchy, or salary. The desire to work safely must be instilled in each person in the company. This desire should be fed and sustained by a well-established culture of safety that is evident throughout all company operations."

How does a company establish that culture? In his book, Kaletsky describes a comprehensive occupational safety and health program that includes the following elements:

Responsibility and authority. Everyone in a company has some responsibility for safety, noted Kaletsky. As a result, employees at all levels also need the authority to work safely and to take actions to promote safety. In particular, he says, that applies to safety directors. "The safety director must be taken seriously and not have to jump through hoops to be heard," he said.

Kaletsky recommends that the safety director be no more than "two beats away" from the main authority at a company or site. "For example, a safety director could report directly to a vice president who reports directly to the president," he said. "If a safety director must report to a personnel director who, in turn, is another three places below the "boss," there is something wrong."

Accountability and evaluation of management. Appraisal systems for supervisors should specifically include safety and health, just as they do quantity of work, quality of work and factors such as customer service, attendance, and cooperation with fellow workers. Kaletsky maintains: "If a supervisor can be questioned about the poor quality of work in his or her department or about the slow production rate, why shouldn"t he or she be questioned about the high rate of accidents and/or unsafe conditions/behaviors in his or her department?"

Employee participation. Companies with superior safety and health programs, Kaletsky observed, "actively solicit comments from line employees" on how to improve safety. "Those persons who operate machines or perform other tasks day after day are in an excellent position to discuss hazards and how to eliminate or mitigate them," he said.

Even when safety management has decided on an action, such as installing a new guarding system, Kaletsky recommends that it be discussed with workers beforehand to prepare them for its introduction into their daily lives. If you continuously demonstrate an interest in their well-being and in their ideas, Kaletsky said, employees will not only be aware of the safety program, but accept it and participate in it to the benefit of all.

Proper attitude. The desire to perform work safely should be "internalized" by employees, not simply imposed on them by management. That means, says Kaletsky, that employers need to change not just behavior but attitudes. In order to do that, employees must be taught to perform tasks safely and then their safe behavior must be reinforced.

"For an attitude to be effectively and lastingly cultivated, employees should really know why they should behave in a certain manner," Kaletsky noted in OSHA Inspections. An example might be an employee who balks at wearing hearing protection because he has been in a loud job three years and has not lost his hearing.

Kaletsky said a safety manager might explain: "It may take several years but once you have hearing loss resulting from noise, from work or the chain saw or the rock band, it doesn"t come back." He might also explain that the noise exposure can contribute to other health problems, such as heart disease or sexual dysfunction. In addition, employees risk losing out on some of the joys of life, such as hearing their kids say something precious or hearing the play-by-play during a ball game.

Training. Don"t settle for "cosmetic" training, Kaletsky warns. Find out if employees really learned what was being taught. Be aware of impediments to training, such as language barriers, disabilities or poor instruction. He also urges employers to assure new hires that it is OK for them to admit that they don"t understand a job.

"Too often, if you ask people if they understand, even though the first time they might honestly say no, the second time ego takes over and they say yes. If you have any doubt that they understand, put them in a position to prove it, either by saying it back or, under a very controlled, safe situation, showing it to you on the machine or with the process."

Training should be in a physical setting that is comfortable, has good ventilation, and allows employees to hear what is being said. He also stressed the importance of meetings starting on time.

Written policies and consistent rules. The company"s safety and health program, writes Kaletsky, "must be concisely documented, readily available, well organized and precisely worded." He noted that he had been in companies with shelves full of safety policies, but it was nearly impossible to find policy updates or understand how the information was organized.

Personal Protective Equipment. If OSHA requires the use of PPE on certain jobs, employers must understand that it is their job not just to offer it, but to assure it is worn. He said employers must assess the need for personal protection throughout their facilities. This assessment can be performed by plant area, job task or by body part (eyes, head, feet, etc.). Employees also need training to ensure that they understand the purpose of the equipment and how it should be used.

Accident investigation. Employers should investigate each accident, even if there was no injury or illness involved. "What if a crane drops a 2-ton load one foot from someone and no one is injured?" Kaletsky asks. "Compare that to an OSHA recordable case where an employee bends to pick up a paper clip and hurts his back. Obviously, the crane case needs a more in-depth investigation."

Use the investigation not to assign blame but to root out the causes. The objective is to preclude or greatly reduce the chances of a similar accident occurring. He warns safety managers not to accept "cop-outs" such as "That"s the price of progress" or "It was just one of those things."

He advises companies to include accident victims on the investigation team where possible. Victims can offer first-hand facts that provide the team with "important nuances that really matter." The victim"s presence can also lend empathy and motivation to the team and helps him or her become "a contributor to a solution."

Progressive discipline. If employee"s responsibilities are clear, safety rules are applied fairly and consistently and infractions are well-documented, said Kaletsky, a company should not encounter major problems with enforcing its safety rules and policies.

"I do suggest that you make it clear in the rules that even if you have certain steps in your discipline scheme, such as written warning, one day off, three days off, out the door, it must be emphasized that in certain cases, steps can be skipped if the infraction involves something, for instance, that is life-threatening," said Kaletsky.

Preventive maintenance. Maintenance items that are put in writing are the ones most likely to receive attention, said Kaletsky, even if it takes the form of just a simple handwritten note on carbon paper with copies to maintenance, the safety committee and the safety manager"s files.

Kaletsky also stresses the value of good inventory control and comprehensive labeling of plant items such as vessels, electrical circuitry, maintenance equipment, fire and safety equipment. "The breaker box -- is it the one behind where Johnny used to work, or can you say, Box P1, Box P2?" he offered as an example.

Hazard inspections. Self-inspections should be unannounced, says Kaletsky, so that you see the shop "the way it normally runs." He also suggests varying routes and times to thwart predictability. "The main thing is to uncover hazards, not just violations of standards," he noted. Once that it is done, the hazards should be evaluated, removed where possible or controlled through engineering, administrative controls or other means.

In looking for hazards, don"t focus solely on easily accessible production areas. "Hazards can be found in compressor shacks, facility grounds, electrical closets, offices" and other areas, he noted. Never assume what is in an area or that someone else has checked it.

When doing an inspection, Kaletsky adds, "Forget the fancy clothes." Inspectors may have to "climb, crawl, bend, walk in grimy areas and get into cramped quarters."

Setting priorities. If a company sets A, B and C priorities for safety items, noted Kaletsky and strictly adheres to that order, it may never get to the Cs. Priorities should factor in the hazard severity, probability of occurrence and number of people exposed. When addressing items, Kaletsky added, do not forget to assign responsibility for abatement. Who will ensure that the problem is fixed? When must the job be completed? Also, learn to delegate safety tasks. While the safety manager is waiting to get an A project set up, someone else can be taking care of a C. "The idea is to get them all," he noted.

Labor-management committees. Include at least as many line employees as managers on the joint labor-management safety committee. The committee should review accidents and investigations conducted since the prior meeting. Meetings should be held at least quarterly; more often if needed. Generally, distribute meeting notes to everybody on the committee and post them for all employees.

Kaletsky recommends that an employee be invited to each meeting. This makes the safety program less mysterious and continually brings fresh ideas to the committee.

Be Creative

While compliance is often thought of as reactive, Kaletsky urges companies to take a creative approach to safety. "Keep looking for ways to lessen exposures, with an eye toward total protection," he said. He said that may involve engineering changes to reduce the need for personal protective equipment, redundant protection, or state-of-the-art equipment upgrades.

Kaletsky, who has coached state-champion Odyssey of the Mind teams that teach students the significance of brainstorming, creativity and alternative thinking, urged the inclusion of employees in problemsolving and reminded managers not to scoff at the ideas presented.

"It is OK to evaluate and determine where there might be loose ends, but the realization that a solution is less than complete should not signal a complete rejection of the concept," he said. Instead, get employees involved in shoring up the idea. "Will it work -- might it work -- if we change the order of a process, use a different part, try different sizes or speeds, substitute another chemical and so on?"

He offers several examples where a creative approach to safety has paid off. In one instance, a firm"s flammable liquid caused a concern regarding vapor ignition. "The company was about to spend a lot of money to modify its electrical fittings to a class and division approved for use in the vicinity of the liquid," he recalled. "Through my suggestions, the company merely switched to a nonflammable liquid."

Finally, Kaletsky said all companies should have the same goal in mind when it comes to safety -- zero accidents. While it might offer bragging rights to have the best injury/illness rate in an industry, he noted, "If there"s only one serious injury or illness in three years, what comfort is gained by the victim and his/her family?"

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