By Chris Marsh
OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration) was established in 1970 when President Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the administration came into being in 1971.
The OSH Act was passed and signed “to assure as far as possible every working man and woman in the nation safe and healthful working conditions and to preserve our human resources.” To do this, the agency focuses on three objectives: improve workplace safety and health by reducing injuries, illnesses, and fatalities; change workplace culture by increasing employer and employee commitment to improved safety and health; and secure public confidence by developing and delivering OSHA services.
As defined by the OSH Act, an employer is any “person engaged in a business affecting commerce who has employees, but does not include the United States or any state or political subdivision of a state.” That includes every business except the self-employed, immediate members of farming families that do not employ outside workers, employees whose working conditions are regulated by other federal agencies, and public employees in state and local government.
OSHA standards establish requirements for maintaining safe and healthful workplaces. The standards require employers to do the following things:
- Maintain conditions and/or adopt practices reasonably necessary and appropriate to protect workers on the job;
- Be familiar with and comply with standards applicable to their establishments;
- Ensure that employees have and use PPE (personal protective equipment) when required; and
- Comply with the “general duty clause” which states that each employer “furnish … a place of employment which is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.” This is used when there is no specific regulation addressing a hazard, especially if death or serious injury is involved.
Below are some of the hazards that OSHA has written citations for in the past under Section 5(a)(1), or the General Duty Clause. These may or may not apply to your company. (These are only examples in some areas, but there are many more.)
In the area of vehicles: obstructed vision of the driver when going in reverse, exposure to crushing hazards from trucks, and exposure to hazard of being run over by a truck.
In the area of broken bones or crushing: crushing or amputation hazard from falling into a moving conveyer belt; being crushed by the bucket lift arms on a front end loader; and exposure to being crushed by a falling load.
Exposure to a fall hazard: when employees ride on a concrete hopper elevated by either an overhead tramrail or forklift.
Exposure to back injuries: due to lifting tasks, and exposure to being struck by a high-pressure hose.
How does OSHA enforce its standards?
OSHA conducts work place inspections to enforce its standards. Compliance officers are authorized to:
- enter any factory, plant, establishment, construction site or other areas of the work place or environment where work is being performed;
- inspect and investigate during regular working hours any such place of employment and all pertinent conditions, structures, machines, apparatus, devices, equipment and materials;
- inspect and investigate at other times any such place of employment and all pertinent conditions, structures, machines, apparatus, devices, equipment and materials;
- question privately any employer, owner, operator, agent or employee during an inspection or investigation.
Why would OSHA come inspect your company or facility?
There are six basic reasons for inspections.
- Imminent danger or conditions where there is a reasonable certainty a danger exists that can be expected to cause death or serious injury. This gets the most attention from OSHA.
- Catastrophes or fatal accidents where an employee is killed or three or more employees are hospitalized. You are required to report this accident within eight hours to either your area OSHA office or by calling 800-321-OSHA. Be sure to get the name of the person you speak with to be able to prove you called in case it is not promptly reported – you can be fined for not reporting.
- Employee complaints involving imminent danger or an employer violation that threatens death or physical harm.
- Referrals from other agencies.
- Planned or programmed inspections in high-hazard industries. These inspections occur because your workers’ compensation modifier is significantly higher than the industry average.
- Finally, there are follow up inspections. These are done either because your company has had problems in the past or the inspector wants to be assured that you have answered any complaints or problems on the previous inspection.
What is an OSHA citation?
Citations inform the employer and employees of:
- The regulations and standards the employer allegedly violated
- Any hazardous working conditions covered by the General Duty Clause
- The proposed length of time set for their abatement
- Any proposed penalties
Types of penalties
Other-than-serious penalty. This means that the violation has a direct relationship to job safety and health, but would probably not cause death or serious physical harm.
Serious violation. This is where there is a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result and the employer knew or should have known of the hazard.
Willful violation. The employer intentionally and knowingly commits a violation or a violation the employer commits with plain indifference to the law. The employer either knows that what he or she is doing constitutes a violation, or is aware that a hazardous condition existed and made no reasonable effort to eliminate it.
A repeated violation of any standard, regulation, rule or order is when OSHA finds a substantially similar violation within the prescribed time limit. OSHA may propose an additional fine of up to $7,000 per day for each day beyond the time limit (see the sidebar “OSHA Violation Categories and Possible Penalties” for various other violations).
What can a company do to comply?
Steve Wolszczenski of Terre Hill Concrete Products in Terre Hill, Pa., recommends a company consider going into OSHA’s VPP program. He says he hopes companies will see OSHA become more cooperative with industry to help the company in the future.
VPP, management, labor and OSHA establish cooperative relationships at workplaces that have implemented a comprehensive safety and health management system. Approval into VPP is OSHA’s official recognition of the outstanding efforts of employers and employees who have achieved exemplary occupational safety and health.
Joan Shirikian, regional safety director at Oldcastle Precast in South Bethlehem, N.Y., says that the goal for work place safety should be to exceed OSHA standards. Compliance with these OSHA standards is a bare minimum for any safety program.
Oldcastle has two plants in the VPP program now. These plants have exceeded OSHA standards. Other Oldcastle locations are following their lead and attempting to exceed OSHA requirements. The way for this to happen is to have a culture change in the entire workforce, from the CEO all the way to the last person hired. Employees in both VPP plants are able to make safe decisions and empowered to stop production if a safety issue arises. Then all affected areas work to solve the problem.
Wolszczenski says the most important thing a company can do in regards to compliance is to maintain accountability in every area of the company and to involve all employees in making safety an ongoing part of their company’s work place.
Shirikian says the worst thing a company can do in regards to compliance is to lie to OSHA or try to hide something from them. OSHA is learning resource and generally wants to help companies work toward providing safe work environments.
Another suggestion for helping your company achieve compliance is to have a dedicated person work on nothing but safety. Although this is not a guarantee for making a company safe, the commitment to safety and empowerment from the CEO to the last person hired are required for a safe company. What department you put that person in is optional, but many companies place him or her into human relations or operations.
Some companies have a vice president of safety and/or training. Jerry Pope of Pope Concrete Products in Waycross, Ga., recommends using a consultant. This would show that you are striving to make your company a safer place to work. OSHA has programs available to help businesses establish a safer work environment – programs that are separate from its enforcement side.
To put compliance into a dollar and cents perspective, if you are able to reduce accidents, you will lower your workers’ compensation premiums by having fewer claims. Safety cannot just be a priority, because priorities change. Safety needs to be a value of every company employee.
Chris Marsh is an OSHA authorized outreach trainer in General Industry in Statesboro, Ga., and helps bring companies into compliance through audits and training.