OSHA Just Bought a Stronger Magnifying Glass
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is shifting from a "quantity" to a "quality" approach this year -- which means increased scrutiny and more complex inspections (yikes!). Here's what every smart HR pro should do to prepare for OSHA's newer, more "impactful" inspections:
OSHA's shiny, new strategy, the "Enforcement Weighting System" went into effect in October of 2015, with the major changes slated to take hold in 2016. According to agency releases, they are now conducting inspections in "enforcement units" with the number of units varying depending upon how much time each inspection requires.
In his Occupational Keynote at the NSC Congress and Expo in 2015, OSHA administrator David Michaels said that inspections could involve extensive interviews with workers about their exposure to hazards, and spending more time on-site observing processes firsthand. "Our [inspectors] who are trained to do that right now often don't have a chance to do that because there is pressure to make their numbers," Michaels said in his address.
OSHA's Goals for 2016
The agency's 2016 budget proposal delved deep into their intentions for the future. They have set a goal to respond to all injury reports they receive in response to stricter recordkeeping rules. That means that employers must fully expect contact from OSHA when a report is filed.
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OSHA officials have also issued fair warning that inspectors will be directed to impose the strictest penalties when a business is found to be noncompliant. Under previous guidelines, compliance officers often issued minor citations that did not come close to maximum penalty standards. The agency has also declared its intent to focus on industries and workplaces with the highest hazard rates where injury, illness and musculoskeletal issues are the most common.
What Does This New Approach Mean for Business?
Prior to implementing this new approach, OSHA typically logged around 40,000 inspections each year, and they expect this number to drop significantly as they focus their energy on complex cases. While this may seem like good news, it means that when OSHA comes knocking, businesses have to be prepared to settle in for the long haul.
Employers are well advised to take heed of these changes and properly prepare for the "new" OSHA. Some are advising businesses that present the highest hazard risks to retain lawyers to conduct a "privileged" OSHA compliance audit that will identify potential issues. During those audits, counsel is not obliged to report to OSHA, which gives a business time to fix any potential issues that could lead to penalty in the event of an inspection.
If hiring counsel is out of your budget, there are steps that employers can take to ready their business and their employees for a potential inspection, including:
- Create a culture of safety that is reinforced with regular training, programs, email campaigns, etc.
- Regularly check-in with employees about safety concerns and follow up whenever one is presented. It is often people on the "front lines" who notice small issues before they become big problems. This can also reduce the chances of an employee using OSHA's online whistleblower program.
- Double up on safety drills. If they are conducted monthly, ramp them up to bi-weekly.
- Review your health and safety manual -- or create one if such a manual does not exist. Hold a formal training session on the manual and require all employees to sign a statement that they have received, read and understood that manual.
- Conduct regular safety audits. Act on any potential issues uncovered in those internal audits. Document everything.
- Maintain regular, accurate 300 logs. Falsifying those logs can lead to severe penalties, and lying to OSHA is a felony.
Remember, despite the fact that OSHA has declared a commitment to pursuing tougher penalties, inspectors are still human. They are far more likely to be understanding of a business that operates from a place of good faith and honesty. A business is always far better off addressing issues internally and documenting those issues than allowing an OSHA inspector to uncover problems.
Safety Compliance Begins and Ends with People
An effective way to decrease compliance risk, improve workplace safety and train new and temporary employees on strict policies is to work with a demonstrated staffing expert. Industries that are susceptible to hazards require specialized hiring practices to ensure that a culture of safety is cultivated at all levels of the organization. If your company's internal HR team is stretched to the limit, make 2016 the year you partner with a staffing expert to help you maintain OSHA compliance.