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Echelon Masonry
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Hohmann and Barnard, Inc.
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June 21, 2002 9:45 AM CDT

OSHA Calling? Don't Panic!

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Uh-oh, there's an OSHA inspector at your door. What do you do now?

The first thing is, stay calm. An inspection is rarely cause for alarm - especially if you understand the process and how to deal with it. Typically, OSHA sends someone to inspect only if there's been a serious accident or employees are getting ill at work. There's always the possibility, however, that a disgruntled employee will file a complaint with OSHA. In that case, OSHA may want to check into what's going on.

An OSHA inspection can take you by surprise. Chances are, you'll get almost no advance notice. So you should take time now to think through how your workplace will fare if an inspector suddenly appears on your doorstep.

Tips for a Self-Inspection
Look at your business the way an OSHA inspector would. Key questions to ask include:

  • What shape is equipment in - and how safe is it?
  • How do workers handle and store materials - especially those that are toxic or otherwise hazardous?
  • Are your buildings and grounds in safe condition?
  • How do you dispose of waste and handle leaks and spills of toxics?
  • Do your electric circuit boxes, wiring and fixtures meet national codes?
  • Are heating and ventilating systems up to current standards?
  • Have workers been trained in machine usage?
  • Have you provided proper protective equipment and clothing to reduce safety risks?

When OSHA Shows Up
Let's say an OSHA inspector shows up unannounced one fine day. The inspector doesn't have a right to tour your place unless a judge has signed a search warrant. But should you insist on a search warrant? Probably not.

First of all, it won't be all that hard for the inspector to get one. More important, it pays to get started on the right foot. Ian Melinsky, a Philadelphia lawyer specializing in labor and OSHA matters, says: "Employers who don't obstruct initial OSHA inspections often end up being cited for fewer violations than employers who obstruct an inspection or require a search warrant. And they pay lower fines per violation."

The Inspection Process
At start of the inspection, verify the inspector's credentials. If something seems fishy, call the nearest OSHA office for guidance. It's a crime to impersonate an OSHA inspector.

There'll be an opening conference with the inspector and you or a company representative. Find out what the inspection is about.

Ask the inspector for the safety and health standards that apply to the inspection. Also, get a copy of any employee complaint. Be aware, though, that the employee's name may not appear on the complaint.

It's wise to cooperate with the inspector. But this doesn't mean you have to volunteer information. Things you say can later be used against you.

When the inspection begins, you or someone else representing the company should stay close. You want to know what the inspector is up to. An employee rep may also be allowed to tag along.

Typically, an inspector will look at safety and health conditions, and may talk to employees privately. The inspector may also take pictures, collect air samples and measure noise levels. The inspector may point out problems and suggest ways to correct them. Sometimes, you can correct a problem on the spot, which helps show good faith.

At the end of the inspection, there will be a closing conference, which the employee rep may also attend. This gives you a chance to ask questions and to talk about corrective actions and the kinds of fines you may incur. Later, you'll get official word of any citations issued. There's an appeals process if you disagree.

When to Call Your Lawyer
You may want to involve your lawyer in all phases of an OSHA inspection, but there are five instances in which legal help is particularly crucial:

  • The inspector shows up with a search warrant.
  • You suspect that criminal charges are being considered.
  • Your business is embroiled in a lawsuit concerning work conditions - or such a lawsuit may be imminent.
  • You need help in dealing with employees who instigated the inspection. You don't want to be accused of retaliation - which is illegal.
  • You want to contest a citation.


About the Author

Fred S. Steingold practices law in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is the author of The Legal Guide for Starting and Running a Small Business and The Employer's Legal Handbook published by Nolo.

This article is not intended to provide legal advice, but to raise issues on legal matters. You should consult with an attorney regarding your legal issues, as the advice you may receive will depend upon your facts and the laws of your jurisdiction.

 

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