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An OSHA inspector recently showed up to perform a ‘random’ inspection. He noted two minor violations and complimented us on our compliance, saying the average body shop has 12 violations. Because he said his report would reflect favorably on us, we mistakenly thought our fines would only be a few hundred bucks.
Sometimes during the course of a normal day, you might hear a phrase that triggers a reaction from you. Some of the reactions are good, others not so good. For example, “You’ve got mail.” This is usually a pleasant phrase that triggers mild excitement and curiosity. Or, if you’re at a public place and someone hollers, “Does anyone own a black Chevy Tahoe?” and that describes your vehicle, you can be pretty sure that what follows isn’t going to be good, so your reaction typically isn’t so good either.
This subject is on my mind because, during a recent telephone call, I reacted to a phrase and it occurred to me how just hearing the phrase affected me. My mind was racing a mile a minute when I heard the voice on the other end say: “There’s an inspector here from OSHA, and he’d like to talk with you.”
This past April, I received this very call from our manager at one of our locations in New Jersey, and let me tell you, I got pretty darn nervous.
An OSHA inspection can occur as the result of a complaint from a person presently employed with you or it can be a random inspection, computer selected by something called SIC codes. A SIC code is a four-digit number that OSHA assigns to industries according to the nature of their business. It’s OSHA’s policy to not consider complaints from former employees. I’m pretty sure this is because some unhappy ex-employees would love to extract a measure of revenge for some perceived injustice by having OSHA swoop down on their former employers.
Because I wasn’t quite sure what to expect and because I survived I wanted to share some information and advice with all of you. That way, if and when you hear the phrase, “There’s an inspector here from OSHA,” you’ll be a little better prepared to handle what comes next.
3 Stages of Inspection
An OSHA inspection consists of three stages:
1. The initial meeting. This happens between the OSHA inspector and the company representative, manager, owner, etc. During this private sit-down session, the OSHA representative will tell you why he’s there and what the physical inspection of the facility entails.
This is a very lonely time. As you’re being told that your shop will be inspected according to federal regulations, your mind is thinking of all the violations that might be found while you’re sitting there, helpless to do anything about it. It’s somewhat like having an armful of grocery bags and being told that your zipper is down.
FYI: You’re not obligated by law to allow the OSHA inspector into your shop for site inspection unless he produces a search warrant. You have the option of asking to see it, and if the OSHA inspector cannot produce one, you can deny him entry until he gets one, which he may or may not elect to do.
However, unless you have something really bad to hide, like weapons-grade plutonium, it’s probably advisable to let him in without a search warrant.
2. Site inspection. With your permission, the OSHA representative will walk through the facility and note any safety violations that are present. Some of the things they typically look for include:
- Damaged or unsafe electrical cords or extensions.
- Missing safety shields or misadjusted tool rests on bench grinders.
- Proper hazardous waste
- Labeling on all containers.
- Proper machine guards (compressors, electric motors, fans).
- Location and contents of first aid kits.
- Personal protection equipment (respirators, eye protection, gloves, etc).
- Compressed gas tank storage.
During this walk, they’ll also conduct private one-on-one interviews with your employees. This could be with every employee, a few or only one. During these interviews, they ask questions about the company procedures for obtaining safety equipment, the location of MSDS sheets and fire extinguishers, general working conditions and the employee’s overall opinion of ownership’s commitment to safety. Although I don’t know exactly how much, I do know that the nature of the technicians’ responses has an effect on the final outcome of the
It’s at this time that you try to remember if you’ve been getting along with all the techs lately. You also privately promise yourself that anyone who rats you out will sleep with the fishes.
3. Final meeting and consultation. This is a private session with company representatives after the site inspection is completed. During this session, the OSHA representative will tell you what violations were noted and the extent of your rights and responsibilities. He’ll also leave informational paperwork with you and answer your questions. However, he won’t tell you the amount of the fines because someone else inside the local OSHA office calculates them.
Calculates?” Jeez, how much is this going to be?” you ask yourself. “You mean the fines aren’t just listed on a paper somewhere? They need a separate step to calculate them?”
Well, yes. (More on this later.)
The Day OSHA Came to Visit
It took me 40 minutes after receiving the telephone call to get to our South Jersey location. By the time I got there, the OSHA inspector had already conducted the initial meeting with our manager and was just finishing up his site inspection and one-on-one interviews with our technicians.
When I sat with him in the final meeting, I found him to be very professional, and I remember thinking how glad I was that we didn’t get a rookie or someone who tried to use his OSHA credentials as a way to intimidate employers and feel important. During the meeting, he asked to see our hazardous communication programs, our inventory list of hazardous materials, our respiratory protection program with medical clearance reports, evidence of right-to-know training and our OSHA injury logs and summary sheets for the last four years.
I handed him everything that he asked for with the exception of two summary sheets that weren’t completely filled out. He said I could fax those to him the next day, which I did.
He said he noted two violations during his inspection. He also said that the normal number of violations for an auto body shop was around 12 and that having only two was rare. He added that most shops don’t have the required respirator program or hazardous communication program and that these violations are two of the most often-cited.
We received one violation because someone had stored an empty acetylene tank with the oxygen and argon CO2 tanks. This one particularly annoyed me because our people know better than to mix tanks like this. The other violation was because the side of one of the MIG welder extension cord boxes was pulled about 1/2 inch away from the box and you could see the 220-volt wires inside.
Despite these two violations, the inspector said that his report would reflect heavily in our favor because, overall, he was very impressed with our compliance and procedures. He also alluded to the fact that our employees had spoken favorably of the company. He said that all these things would help in reducing the fine amounts.
By then I was feeling a lot better, and I figured that I was stressing out over nothing. It’s just a tank and an extension cord. We had everything else he asked for, our techs spoke well of the company and we only had two violations when everyone else has 12. How bad can it be? The fine will probably be only a few hundred bucks, which we’ll pay and everybody will live happily ever after.
Challenging the Fines
Three weeks later, I received the OSHA Citation and Notice of Penalty totaling $3,500.
However, because the inspector spoke so favorably of our efforts in his report, that amount was reduced to $1,575. As a further incentive, this figure would be reduced an additional 25% to $1,181 if the settlement agreement was signed, paid and returned and the violations corrected within 15 days.
But even with the substantial reduction in fines, I thought the punishments didn’t fit the crimes and needed to be challenged. So instead of paying the fines, I decided to take advantage of an appeal process that OSHA has, and I made an appointment with the OSHA area director to plead our case and try to get a further fine reduction or even an
At our meeting, the area director was, as in the case of the field inspector, very professional and didn’t use any intimidation tactics. After reviewing our file and listening to my argument, she said that she wouldn’t eliminate either of the violations but would further reduce them to $976. I’m pretty sure we got this additional $200 reduction just because we took the time to go there and plead our case. I also asked her how our company happened to be selected for an OSHA inspection. She told me the same thing as the field inspector: There was no complaint registered; we had been randomly selected.
So we paid the fines, and I’ve requested in writing a copy of the inspector’s report so I can turn it over to our HAZMAT consultant. We’re entitled to a copy of the report under the Freedom of Information Act. I figure there might be something on it that will help us
in case we’re inspected again in
How We Stay Compliant
One of the major reasons we
have all the required OSHA programs and procedures that the inspector asked for is because we employ a HAZMAT compliance specialist R. Bates & Associates of Yorktown, Va. If you’re interested, Robin Bates will field OSHA
and EPA questions from body shops without obligation at (757)
I strongly suggest that body shops employ some sort of assistance when it comes to OSHA and EPA compliance. There are just too many rules and regulations, and the fines are just too punishing to risk relying on your common sense or on third-hand information to be in compliance. I really think our company has its act together, and it still cost us almost $1,000 for two relatively minor infractions and this amount was after three fine reductions!
I don’t want to even think about how much our fines would have been if we didn’t have some or any of the required programs that the field inspector asked to see. More importantly, compliance programs or consultation really do reduce risk of injury and health hazards, and they make your place of business a safer one for you and your employees.
If you do an online search for “OSHA compliance” or “hazardous communication,” you’ll find online tutorials and do-it-yourself CDs from various sites. OSHA compliance kits can range from simple advisory CDs for $20 to complete kits for up to $900. This may be sufficient for smaller shops with owners who have the time and ability to administer the necessary programs. Also check out “The Automotive Workplace Guide to EPA and OSHA” by H. Ray Kirk.
This is a very good reference binder book that will cost you
A larger shop or multi-location company with less time to devote may opt to hire a hands-on HAZMAT consultant company like we do. In this case, a representative who specializes in hazardous communication programs will come on-site, take inventory of all materials and chemicals present, and design a hazardous communication program tailored to your company. Services like these can cost up to $3,000 for the initial program preparation with reduced rates for yearly follow-up and updates. The initial preparation is more expensive because it involves the creation of binders and books that have sections for MSDS sheets, hazardous communication programs, hearing protection, respirator protection, bloodborne pathogens and lockout-tagout programs.
It’s important to understand, however, that it’s still up to you and/or the company to carry out the programs. It’s the consultant’s job to make you aware of the regulations in terms you can understand and to put the hard copies in place. It’s your job to see that everything gets done.
Why We Fear OSHA
I believe OSHA to be a very good thing. This organization exists because, unfortunately, not all companies can be trusted to provide a safe working environment for their employees.
But if OSHA is a good thing, why are so many good, responsible business owners scared to death of it? If OSHA exists for the general good, why do business owners not want to see OSHA at their doors? You’d think OSHA would have a great working relationship with any business that cares about its employees, but from all accounts I hear, this isn’t the case.
Something is wrong with this picture, and here’s my version of what it is:
Like I stated earlier, I believe that our company has its act together, and we shouldn’t be fearful of an OSHA inspection yet we are. The reason we’re fearful is because there are thousands of OSHA rules and regulations. Even with the best consultant and best practices and intentions, we cannot possibly be sure that every employee at every location is following all the rules all the time to the letter of the law.
If a violation is discovered and recorded during an OSHA inspection, that business will be fined. There is no grace period in which to correct the violation. And that, in my opinion, is the reason why hearing the word “OSHA” strikes fear in the hearts of stout-hearted, well-intentioned men and women. For an organization that exists to help people, this isn’t the way things should be.
OSHA fines can range from up to $1,000 for relatively minor infractions to more than $60,000 for what OSHA calls “willful
negligence” violations, depending
This is a lot of money, boys and girls. And I don’t know of any small business that can take a 60-grand hit and survive.
Perhaps it would be better to do something similar to what many local township fire marshals do: They list any violations that are present during their inspection and give you an abatement date to fix things. If everything isn’t corrected or at least addressed by that date, then come the fines.
OSHA does, however, have a free consulting service. At your request, OSHA will send out a representative who will walk through your facility with you and make recommendations on what you need to do to be in compliance with OSHA rules and regulations. But be aware that once the OSHA representative documents any item or situation, you’re then responsible to make all corrections by a certain abatement date. I’m not sure if this is a good way to structure consultation, and I don’t think that, personally, I’d ever use this service. Since your opinion may differ from mine, you can find more information at www.osha.gov/dcsp/smallbusiness/consult.html.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I think that an OSHA inspection is something that’s always lurking in the back of business owners’ heads. On the other hand, even though we know OSHA could stop in and inspect us, we really don’t think they ever will. After all, the state
is so big with countless businesses and companies that surely
OSHA would never find little
But I know better. OSHA can find anyone. Even you.
Writer Richard V. Brigidi handles site development for CollisionMax, a collision repair company with multiple locations specializing in insurance claims on late-model vehicles.
Top 5 Body Shop OSHA Violations
1. Respiratory protection.