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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.-Public and private employers facing an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspection need to be familiar with the "ins and outs of the process" if they hope to pass muster, a loss control specialist says.
It's a situation that prompted Tim Longbrook, senior loss control representative for the Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency in Denver, to quote Will Rogers: "It ain't what you don't know that's a problem. . . .It's what you know that ain't so."
Mr. Longbrook discussed the nature of OSHA inspections and offered public risk managers tips to improve their entities' chances of survival last month during a session at the annual conference of the Public Risk Management Assn. in Albuquerque, N.M.
Noting that the federal OSHA is "trying to reinvent itself," Mr. Longbrook told public risk managers that recent reform proposals in Congress would put state and local employers under the direct review of OSHA 30 days after the bill became law.
Public employers are now exempt from the federal safety agency's oversight.
"How many of you can say that within 30 days you'd be ready for a federal OSHA inspection?" he asked. His question prompted only a few raised hands from the audience.
"Contrary to what you might have heard, the OSHA budget has not been reduced. In fact, it has been increased by $120 million," he added.
That budget increase represents a 4% hike in the funds available for workplace inspections, Mr. Longbrook said.
The Colorado pool's loss control specialist described two kinds of OSHA inspections:
"Unprogrammed" inspections are prompted by such things as employee complaints, a fatal accident or one involving numerous hospitalizations, accidents reported in the news media or referrals from other agencies.
"Programmed" inspections are routine inspections of high-hazard or "special emphasis" industries and usually are "wall to wall," examining the company's operations in detail.
The federal agency places top priority on inspecting workplaces believed to pose imminent danger, followed by sites of fatalities or catastrophes, employers targeted by complaints or referrals-all unprogrammed inspections-and then focuses on programmed inspections, according to Mr. Longbrook.
An employer faced with a surprise OSHA inspection does have the right to demand a search warrant, according to Mr. Longbrook. though he added that's typically not a good idea, because the agency usually can obtain one fairly quickly, and at best all it does is "buy you a little time" while possibly incurring the ire of the inspectors.
To prepare for a potential inspection, then, the first step is to determine whether to demand a warrant, then assemble necessary equipment to take notes and photographs or videotapes of the inspection, Mr. Longbrook said.
"What the compliance officer looks at, you look at," he said. "If they take a picture, you take a picture."
Companies also should review any previous inspection reports. "Keep up to date on those," Mr. Longbrook said. "They're not going to call and say, 'Hey, we're coming tomorrow.'"
Employers should check the credentials of anyone claiming to be an OSHA inspector. "Make sure the person is who they say they are and that they're legitimate," Mr. Longbrook said. And during the inspection, the employer should always have someone accompany the inspector and should bring along some of its top maintenance workers.
"Never, never, never let an inspector go around in your playground unsupervised," Mr. Longbrook said.
Meanwhile, the maintenance people can be useful because under OSHA's new "kinder, gentler" approach "they can give you credit for things you can fix on the spot," according to Mr. Longbrook.
Employers must be able to immediately supply any documents the OSHA inspector requests, Mr. Longbrook said, and he warned risk managers to carefully weigh any statements or admissions to an inspector, noting: "If you say something, it can be used against you."
In addition to seeing the inspection officer's credentials, employers also have the right to contest any OSHA citations and apply for variances, according to Mr. Longbrook.
Faced with an inspection, he suggested that companies should ask the reason for the inspection and whether it is limited or "wall to wall."
He also advised them not to volunteer information.
Prior to inspections, employers should develop compliance plans so they are prepared.
Such plans should include identifying and eliminating potential hazards and conducting and documenting required employee safety training, Mr. Longbrook suggested.
"One thing that's really important in your training: When you're documenting that training, document who is providing that training, also," he said. "Those are the kinds of things that can really help."
Other steps include: posting required OSHA notices prominently in the workplace and maintaining an injury log; developing and enforcing safety rules and procedures; establishing a written safety program; keeping up to date on new standards; and revising and reviewing the compliance plan periodically.
"Near-misses are an excellent time to get your safety committee involved in some sort of review," Mr. Longbrook said.
"Don't wait for something to happen," he said.
He noted that of the top 30 workplace standards most often cited by OSHA inspectors, seven relate to hazard communications. "So you know that's an emphasis area, don't you?" Mr. Longbrook told public risk managers.
"Once the OSHA inspector has left, there are still things you can do," Mr. Longbrook said, advising the risk managers that they can ask for abatements, delays of enforcement actions or review of inspections.
In addition, a considerable volume of useful information is readily available from OSHA and others to help understand and prepare for the inspection process, he said.