Washington Update

Washington Update: The weight of OSHA inspections

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Who’s keeping track of the number of inspections OSHA conducts each year? Not OSHA – not anymore.

On Sept. 29 at the 2015 National Safety Council Congress & Expo in Atlanta, OSHA administrator David Michaels said his agency would move away from tracking the total number of inspections conducted each year as part of an effort to emphasize quality over quantity.

Inspections can be lengthy. For a proper inspection, Michaels explained, compliance officers need to interview workers, wait for lab results and bring experts in to a facility.

“That all takes time,” Michaels said, noting that some inspections can take several months. Unfortunately, inspectors don’t always have the time necessary because of “pressure to make their numbers.”

The agency has tried something similar before. In the mid-1990s, OSHA dropped its annual number of inspections to 25,000 and faced severe backlash from Congress. The idea was the same then as now – focus less on the total number of inspections and more on the quality of inspections. But OSHA has something today it didn’t have 20 years ago: enforcement units.

Rather than simply de-emphasizing inspection numbers, OSHA will instead weigh each inspection. A relatively simple inspection that takes only 10 hours will be weighted lower than one that takes 300 hours.

To Rick Kaletsky, this sounds like a good idea. Kaletsky, a Connecticut-based safety consultant, is a former OSHA supervisor who had to evaluate compliance officers in several categories, including the number of inspections conducted. Using a weighted measurement means an inspector or area office won’t be penalized for conducting more complicated and thorough inspections.

“What this will do is, it will stop the concept of saying this office did 32 inspections and this office did three,” he said.

Although he supports the new system, Kaletsky warned that an increased focus could emerge on the number of violations alleged from each inspection.

John Newquist, an Illinois-based consultant and former OSHA regional administrator, said that given the increased number of hours it takes to conduct inspections, compliance officers might feel pressure to be more thorough and uncover more hazards. But that doesn’t necessarily mean this will lead to inflated citations, Newquist added. Rather, he believes the end result will be more citations upheld in litigation because inspectors will not be rushed when writing up the violations.

He pointed to a recent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission decision that vacated dozens of citations for willful violations against an Ohio refining facility. A $3 million penalty was reduced to $35,000.

 

“They were rushed,” Newquist said. “How do you lose 41 willfuls? I think it’s because you didn’t have the time and documentation. And this would give them the time to do it right.”

Kaletsky agreed. Sometimes it’s not a matter of complexity with an inspection, but of quality, he said. The new system may give compliance officers an opportunity to slow down instead of rushing through an inspection to get to the next one on the list.

So what results might we see from this new system?

Newquist estimates that the true number of inspections likely will drop from the current average of about 40,000 to 35,000 or even 30,000 a year. Employers in the manufacturing or construction industries will not see much of a difference. But other employers, particularly those involved in the chemical industry, may find that compliance officers are spending more time onsite. The number of inspections related to ergonomics, workplace violence and process safety management will probably increase, Newquist said, which could lead to more total citations issued.

So now more than ever, when OSHA inspectors knock on your door, be prepared – they may be coming in for the long haul.

The opinions expressed in “Washington Update” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

Kyle W. Morrison

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