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SLC Preview 2024: Surprise! OSHA’s here (but don’t panic).

July 10, 2024
OSHA might catch you off guard, but you can keep your cool. Most importantly, you can be prepared, polite and firm.

Knock, knock. You have an unexpected—and perhaps unwelcome—visitor at your door. It’s an OSHA inspector with a clipboard, though it might as well be a scythe.

It’s moments like these where practice and training pays off, says Pete Flatten, director of national safety for Tuff Shed, a vertically integrated manufacturer of garages and storage buildings.

Flatten will share his 20 years of safety experience while also being real about working with OSHA at the 2024 Safety Leadership Conference that’s taking place Aug. 26-28 in the greater Denver area. More information, including registration, can be found here. Below is a preview of what to expect from Flatten’s presentation.

EHS Today: Let’s say OSHA's at my door. I'm panicking. It's OSHA, after all. How can I calm down?

Flatten: Being unprepared can easily lead to panic, regardless of the situation. As a normal part of business, most managers prepare for a variety of potential business scenarios, and an OSHA visit needs to be one of those things!

One of the best steps you can take to prepare is to have a consultant come and do an inspection. Your insurance company will probably provide one at low to no cost, and OSHA may offer a consultive service to come out and do an inspection, during which you won’t be cited for any findings. 

Also, make sure your employees are comfortable telling you about safety issues in their work environment. If they aren’t, issues will go unaddressed, and this will be evident during the inspection. Finally, know it’s OK not to be perfect! However, you should not have anything to hide. If that is the case, you should feel good about whatever comes next.

OK, OSHA's here. What should I do first, second and third?

OSHA understands that higher management needs to be notified when an inspection is taking place, so ask if they will wait while you do this. This gives you time to notify your boss and get some advice, notify your staff, and get an idea of the state of your facility since you last walked it. Depending on a few factors, you will also be calling your general counsel or legal representative for advice on next steps. 

When you start the opening conference with the compliance officer, make sure you ask why they are there and to see any documentation about what they intend to inspect. You will use this to guide the inspector and to try and keep the scope of the inspection from expanding. Toward this end, you should consider limiting nonessential work during the inspection.

Perhaps most importantly, work with the officer, not against them! After all, you are both ultimately after the same things: a safe, healthy and productive work environment.

How do you balance safety concerns with OSHA's requests?

OSHA inspections never occur at the most convenient time, such as right after a reset when everything is new and shiny, or the day after you did your monthly safety inspection and are on top of any issues. Sometimes, OSHA will show up during a particularly hazardous operation or at the busiest time of the day.

Your number one goal is that nobody gets hurt, so if the inspection will put your team or the inspector at undo risk, either you or OSHA will have to bend. Telling OSHA that you are in the middle of a hazardous operation and the inspection will either need to be delayed an hour (or two or three) or rescheduled is perfectly legitimate. If OSHA agrees, great! If not, then it’s time to call up the chain for directions on next steps.

Also, OSHA needs to follow all the safety rules that your staff must follow, so don’t be bashful about holding firm to your PPE and other safety policies when they want to enter your workspace.

How do you say no to OSHA?

Politely! But sometimes, it is necessary. An easy example of when to say no is when OSHA asks to interview a manager. If that request is made, respectfully tell them that will have to be worked out with your boss and the company’s legal representative. Managers speak on behalf of the company, so they should never be interviewed by OSHA without approval or representation.

Also, OSHA will sometimes ask for a lot of records. Some records, such as OSHA logs and training, are supposed to be provided within four hours of a request. When they ask for other documents that are outside the scope of the inspection, it is OK to say no in a professional manner.

Let’s say it's been a while, but OSHA finally leaves my facility. In some ways, that's just the beginning of what's to come. How do you decide the next appropriate action?

Before the inspector leaves, they should have a closing conference during which they will review their findings and discuss their next steps. Based on that conversation, you should start working on abatement issues immediately. Anything you can fix before they leave the premises is a good thing; document it and provide it to them so they can you see you are taking the inspection seriously and that you are on top of things.

Besides that, you should call your boss and/or counsel to give a report on what was said (and not said). From there, you can strategize on the point of contact, the pictures taken and words spoken, and—most importantly—your responses to OSHA.

Other things to consider are:

  • Do they want to return for a follow-up visit?
  • Did they do interviews?
  • If so, what was discussed?
  • What documentation did they ask for and when do they want it submitted?

Having a plan for the next phase is important but remember: What was discussed with the officer before they left may or may not be what is in the findings document that you will receive in a few weeks, so don’t overreact. Finally, have a meeting with your employees about the inspection, give them feedback and set expectations for moving ahead.

What's the most important thing you've learned about OSHA in your 20-plus years working in safety?

That OSHA inspectors are people, too! They have good and bad days, they don’t know what they don’t know, and they are trying to help keep people safe. Treating them with respect is not only wise, but also how we want to be treated, so use the Golden Rule with them.

If they see that you are a good manager who is trying to take care of his/her people, they will be more likely to work with you. However, if you treat them rudely, and it is pretty evident that you aren’t taking care of your employees, they will be less likely to work with you.

We all know the phrase expect the unexpected, but there are so many things that safety professionals see on the job, things they could've never imagined in their wildest dreams. How can they prepare for things they might not be able to conceive of?

Your people probably have the best ideas about the risks in your facility. Do they talk to you about it? If not, you really need to turn that dynamic around and get the communication going. Personal relationships, safety committees, suggestion boxes, Behavior Based Safety forms, etc. are all methods that give employees a voice.

Are you providing that voice? More importantly, are you listening? What actions are you taking after you hear about a potential hazard? By not acting on the information, you are signaling employees to stop communicating; however, if you act on the information, they will be motivated to continue engaging with you. Having open communication with your team is one of the best ways to avoid surprises!

What's one thing you hope attendees take away from your presentation at the Safety Leadership Conference?

My hope is that people will see that dealing with an OSHA inspection is not the end of the world, especially if we have been taking care of our people. It all comes down to caring. If you do that, you’re ahead of the game!

About the Author

Nicole Stempak

Nicole Stempak is managing editor of EHS Today and conference content manager of the Safety Leadership Conference.

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