The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets and enforces safety standards for the workplace. It’s a simple job description but a huge undertaking. And given that negative attitudes toward the agency are pervasive among U.S. employers and workers, OSHA’s authority has taken on an almost mythical quality, and many misconceptions about the agency’s powers remain.
It’s not just negative attitudes toward OSHA that affect how your program is managed, though. Even positive misconceptions need to be corrected if they’re leading you to waste time and energy on the wrong things. Let’s bust a few enduring OSHA myths.
Myth 1: True Compliance Is Impossible Due to the General Duty Clause
While many see the General Duty Clause as a catch-all under which inspectors can fine you for almost any general safety violation, the clause only requires you to remove recognized hazards that pose a risk of serious injury or death to your employees.
To cite you under the General Duty Clause, the inspector has to demonstrate that a hazard exists and that no other safety standard applies. This is complicated and time consuming for the agency because the Area Director is required to review all proposed Section 5(a)(1) violations. However, if the hazard is serious, recognized, and able to be corrected, they will cite you.
To bust this myth, release your employees from the pressure to immediately correct the smallest of potential hazards. Instead, assess your overall operations and safety practices, and implement the programs required to control serious risks, such as lockout/tagout and machine guarding for a manufacturing company.
Myth 2: If I Invite OSHA to Inspect My Business, I Will Be Immune to Citations
If you invite OSHA to inspect your business, it will send a consulting team, not an inspection team. Any potential violations will be noted by the consultation inspector, and your company will be expected to correct them. However, if you fail to correct the hazards identified during your consulting audit within the deadline provided, OSHA can (and will likely) still cite you.
OSHA may also conduct a compliance audit if a complaint is filed or a serious incident occurs at the facility, regardless of your having worked with the consultation section.
It’s still a great idea to invite OSHA to inspect your company, especially if your workers regularly assume fall risks by working on ladders, scaffolding, or rooftops. Bust this myth by taking the inspectors’ reports seriously and improving worker safety.
Myth 3: OSHA Prioritizes Large Companies
It can be true that with large companies, more employees are likely to be at risk when a safety concern is present. Therefore, if OSHA prioritizes inspecting a large company, it’s because of the perceived level of risk, not the size of the company alone.
OSHA inspections follow a hierarchy based on what type of workplace hazard has been brought to the agency’s attention. The hierarchy is imminent danger situations, severe injuries and illnesses, worker complaints, referrals, targeted inspections, and follow-up inspections. So, a small company presenting an imminent threat will always be higher on the list than a large company without one.
To bust this myth, remember that OSHA citations of large and recognizable companies are more likely to make the news. Any place can get inspected and cited if it has a fatality, a serious injury, or an imminent threat to workers in its offices, factories, or jobsites.
Myth 4: OSHA Inspectors Will Enforce Our Written Safety Policy
Totally false! OSHA inspectors can only enforce violations of OSHA Health and Safety Standards that apply to your work situation and/or Section 5(a)(1)—they won’t even enforce standards written in OSHA publications.
To bust this myth, improve your safety policy with additional consensus standards provided by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), or the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP)—and don’t sweat it.
Myth 5: If OSHA Comes to Inspect You, Employees Should Stop Working
This tongue-in-cheek joke has turned into a jobsite myth in some circles. Yes, you may refuse to allow a site inspection without a warrant, and it’s smart to escort the inspector to applicable areas of your worksite. However, if you order your employees to stop working during an inspection, you risk legal repercussions that may include criminal charges or additional fines. OSHA investigators must verify that workers are safe during an on-site audit.
If you know roughly when the inspector is coming (although the vast majority of inspections are unannounced), it’s a good idea to perform a preinspection of your own to make sure no obvious unsafe conditions are present. Provide training for your workers on what to do in the event of an inspection, and ensure they understand that they should cooperate and answer an inspector’s questions truthfully. Employees also have the right to speak with the inspectors privately if they request to without fear of retaliation from the company.EHS Daily Advisor