A poorly managed OSHA investigation can result in jaw-dropping financial sanctions, negative media coverage – even criminal allegations for the employees, management staff and owners of your construction firm. In fact, numerous construction companies have gone out of business after failing to pass an OSHA inspection after a job site catastrophe.
If your company has fallen under the scrutiny of OSHA’s critical eye, the following guide will help you navigate and prepare for your OSHA investigation.
OSHA Safety Compliance: Never Assume You’re Doing Enough
Your construction company follows OSHA regulations to the letter. Your employees receive constant safety training. Your equipment and tools receive continual maintenance. Nevertheless, the inherent dangers of the construction industry that injuries – even deaths – are always a possibility at your construction site, and you need to be prepared for the investigations that follow such events.
A catastrophic accident will trigger an OSHA investigation. Like all federal agencies, OSHA enforces its rules with a heavy-handed, black-and-white mentality. It doesn’t matter if you found a safer way to mix cement. It doesn’t matter if a specific OSHA standard didn’t apply to how your employee was using the jackhammer. Sometimes, it doesn’t even matter if you followed all the rules. An OSHA investigation can go terribly wrong if you’re not strategically prepared.
Strategic Preparation for an OSHA Investigation: The Benefits
Here are some of the worst consequences that can result when OSHA decides you haven’t adhered to the strictest letter of federal regulations:
- Costly civil penalties and sanctions
- Orders to halt all construction activities
- Criminal prosecution of owners, managers and employees
- News stories that discredit your firm’s reputation for safety
- Permanently-damaged relations between owners, managers and employees
- Financial liability in civil lawsuits
- Abatement costs triggered by environmental hazards
By strategically planning for an upcoming OSHA inspection, construction companies will reduce the threat of costly government sanctions in addition to the following benefits:
- Avoid the potential for workflow cessation and slow-downs
- Preserve trust between management and employees
- Keep your company in good standing with local and regional officials
- Present your company to OSHA in a way that accurately reflects your company’s passionate dedication to safety regulation compliance
- Prevent other negative results referenced above
Prepare Staff Members Before the OSHA Inspection Begins
As soon as a catastrophic accident happens, you should begin strategic preparations for an upcoming OSHA investigation. The following steps will help present your construction company to OSHA in the best possible light:
Assemble a team to manage the investigation process: Your OSHA investigation prep team should consist of trusted employees who will manage the investigation process. This team will oversee the preparation of information for OSHA and communicate with OSHA inspectors while ensuring that the investigation process does not negatively affect your firm’s work and business operations.
Designate and train an OSHA Inspection Guide: Designate a single individual with excellent people and communication skills to guide the OSHA compliance officer through the job site during all on-site inspections. This individual will also serve as an ombudsman to communicate with all government officials during the investigation process.
Since your OSHA inspection guide will serve as the “face” of your company, make sure he or she maintains a firm grasp of your work and safety policies, construction site protocol and any areas of business the OSHA investigation will focus upon. Thoroughly prepare this representative with information pertaining to construction equipment specifications, safety policies and all federal regulations that apply to your job site. Also, train this employee with regard to your company’s legal rights to be protected and strategies for managing liability concerns during OSHA communications.
Create a Company-Wide Security Protocol: In the wake of a catastrophic accident, media outlets could take aggressive action to sensationalize the incident, resulting in reputation-damaging news stories that don’t accurately portray your firm’s commitment to safety. Others could try to impersonate an OSHA or government official during the investigation process for nefarious reasons. A security protocol that requires official identification from all individuals claiming to be government or OSHA representatives will minimize these risks while safeguarding confidential information. Train all staff members to inform a specific employee who will alert appropriate team leaders and management when OSHA or government officials present themselves.
Managing the OSHA Inspection Process After it Begins
Once the OSHA investigation begins, prepare for an examination that feels intrusive, like your construction company is being scrutinized under a microscope. As indiscrete as this process is, approach the OSHA investigation openly and communicate with OSHA officials respectfully. The following actions will ensure good relations with the inspection personnel and other government representatives during your investigation:
1. OSHA Official Wait Times Should Not Exceed 45 Minutes
Whether it’s a state or federal official who arrives to conduct an inspection, to maintain good relations, it’s important that you do not keep this individual waiting. Your designated “OSHA inspection guide” should be available at all times to meet OSHA inspectors during business hours should they arrive unannounced.
If your designated representative is not immediately available, do not keep the inspector waiting. Construction firms have the legal right to prevent someone from entering their job sites, but if the wait time is unreasonable, the inspector could force entry by obtaining a judge’s warrant. To err on the side of caution, an OSHA inspector’s wait time should not exceed 45 minutes.
2. OSHA Pre-Investigation Opening Conferences
As the first order of business, the OSHA safety inspector will conduct an “opening conference” with your designated OSHA inspection guide. During this opening conference, the inspector will describe the reasons for the OSHA investigation.
Your designated OSHA inspection guide should take this opportunity to provide safety training to the inspector. The inspection guide will provide all the necessary safety equipment – like harnesses or hardhats – that the inspector is required to use while navigating the job site. The inspection guide should also provide all required safety training to the inspector to ensure he or she navigates the construction location safely. The guide should also politely notify the inspector of any confidential or restricted areas of the work area that are legally off-limits.
3. OSHA Onsite Walk-Around Inspections
After the inspector has received appropriate safety training and safety equipment, he or she will conduct the on-site inspection, i.e., the walk-around inspection. This walk-around inspection could focus on a specific area of the construction site and its associated machinery. Alternatively, it could be a wall-to-wall examination of your entire premises. The following advice will help OSHA inspection guide manage the walk-around inspection process:
- Follow the OSHA investigator: Ensure that your OSHA inspection guide is present with the inspector throughout the walk-around.
- Schedule longer employee interviews for another time: Prevent extensive work interruptions by scheduling interviews between the inspector and individual employees. If the inspector wishes to conduct an impromptu interview with an employee who is currently engaged in a task, politely limit the interview to no more five minutes and ask to schedule a longer interview at another time.
- Take detailed notes of the inspection: Ensure that the OSHA inspection guide takes detailed notes during the inspection. These notes should detail the inspector’s comments and questions, and work areas or pieces of equipment the inspector focused on. The OSHA inspection guide should also take photographs that mirror any photographs taken by the inspector.
- Refuse any requests for demonstrations: The OSHA inspector is only permitted to observe work as it’s being performed. Officials cannot request demonstrations to show how workers use or operate certain pieces of machinery, and you should politely refuse.
- Ask to pre-schedule industrial hygiene tests: Industrial hygiene tests will require the presence of an industrial hygienist. If the investigator asks for such testing, it’s your right to schedule it for a later time when the appropriate staff members are present.
- Protect your business secrets: You have the right to maintain the confidentiality of your business operations, and you can prevent the OSHA inspector from photographing protected trade secrets. Your OSHA inspection guide should tell the inspector that your company will provide these photographs itself to OSHA.
4. OSHA Information and Documentation Requests
OSHA investigators will ask for a wide array of documents and information as a part of the investigation process. The requested information could include safety logbooks, training materials, health plans, safety procedures, employment policies, injury logbooks, incident report records, equipment maintenance logs, information about hazardous materials, management training materials, lists of onsite machinery and equipment and a great deal more.
The more open and transparent you are in response to OSHA’s information requests, the better. To ensure that you comply with OSHA’s requests for documentation completely – and in an organized fashion – ask OSHA to submit a written request for information to your designated OSHA Inspection Guide representative who will manage a complete and thorough response.
5. OSHA Employee and Management Interviews
OSHA inspectors and government officials will conduct private, one-on-one interviews with employees of your company as a part of the investigation process. Unless a subpoena has been issued, however, your employees have the right to refuse such an interview. Your employee can request a company representative or union representative of his or her choice to be present for the interview. Your construction company cannot interfere with these interviews in any way. Moreover, your company cannot ask an employee to refuse an interview.
OSHA inspectors may also demand interviews with management staff. Your company maintains the right to have a legal representative present during OSHA interviews of management personnel. Having a legal representative present is highly recommended during these interviews because the statements made by management could later be used against your firm.