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School of safety

October 1, 2009

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An inside look at the education of OSHA inspectors

KEY POINTS
  • New inspectors attend several classes over a three-year period, but can be out in the field by themselves in about six months.
  • The training that inspectors receive includes classroom learning and real-life field work.
  • Inspectors are trained to focus on hazards, not citation numbers, trainers claim.
By Kyle W. Morrison, associate editor

It’s a macabre scene. Severed hands lie on various industrial cutting machines and bodies are strewn about on the ground. In a nearby room, an arc blast killed a worker. Down the hall, another worker fell to his death. Blood runs everywhere. OSHA compliance officers arrive and observe the scene. Where do they begin? Lucky for them, they are in the right place to learn. At the OSHA Training Institute in Arlington Heights, IL, the bodies and severed limbs are mannequins, and the blood is fake. The victims here may not be real, but the hazards that caused their “injuries” are similar to those an inspector may find in an actual workplace.

Simulated accidents are part of the training OSHA inspectors receive. To some safety stakeholders, that training is not as good as it should be, resulting in OSHA inspectors who attempt to issue citations for hazards that may not be citation-worthy. “Some of these guys [from OSHA] are trying to find something, so they dig and dig until they find something,” said one safety professional in the telecommunications industry who asked not to be identified. “They can get anybody they want. None of us can walk away unscathed if they really want to find something on us.”

Those in charge of training the compliance officers who go into the field paint a different picture. “We’re trying to get at the truth,” said Charlie Shields, director of OTI. “A big problem is people don’t trust the government, no matter what level.”

Some may see compliance officers as government tools used to drive up citation numbers; Shields sees them as people who educate employers by spotting hazards that could endanger employees’ lives. And the training that inspectors receive is aimed at exactly that.

Inspector trainees

In September, Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis announced she was adding 130 new OSHA inspectors to the payroll, which will lead to a future influx of trainees at OTI. Some trainees come straight out of college, Shields said, while others have worked years in a specific industry; it all depends on what the particular needs of any given regional office may be. All hires must meet minimum qualifications for one of three OSHA inspector career paths (industrial hygiene, safety or construction) that include degrees in those specific fields or relevant experience.

At Indiana OSHA, about one-third of all compliance officers for the state-run plan are out of college; the rest have prior experience and a relative degree, according to Jeff Carter, deputy commissioner of labor and head of IOSHA. “We’re hiring people with master’s degrees and extensive experience,” he said.

A compliance officer straight out of college is worrisome to Bill Dorst, a safety manager based in Pleasant Prairie, WI, for industrial tape manufacturer Permacel. Dorst stressed the importance of “real-world” experience. “Just the ability to go to a site and interface with the people you’re going to be dealing with, I think it requires some level of experience and maturity,” he said.

Rick Kaletsky, a Connecticut-based consultant and former OSHA inspector, agrees. Kaletsky stressed that compliance officers in training need to “get dirty” in real-life situations. “I don’t care if they have 14 degrees. This isn’t just formulas or the common use of audits,” he said.

Shields said that although new hires at OTI spend part of their training time sitting in classrooms, the hands-on training they receive in OTI laboratories, which mimics real-life scenarios, gives them real-world experience. “It’s not just all sitting there, lecturing and PowerPoint [presentations],” he said.

Hazard recognition

A newly hired OSHA compliance officer will spend about two months in his or her area office, going out into the field as an observer with veteran inspectors. After that, inspectors attend their first class at OTI.

Over a three-year period, they attend a series of 10 or more classes in their discipline – each running about two weeks. In between classes, they return to their area offices for more on-the-job training.

The training inspectors receive is not solely focused on when a standard may be violated. At IOSHA, the No. 1 attribute Robert Kattau wants to see in a new compliance officer is hazard recognition.

Kattau, director of industrial compliance for IOSHA, said new inspectors need to know when a situation is potentially life-threatening, and must recognize something needs to be done about it first and worry later about what standard violation could be cited.

“I think it’s important that inspectors walk through a facility and can find something that leads to injury or death,” Kattau said. “If you go strictly by the books, you’ll never really know why something is bad.” Kaletsky believes all compliance officers should have curiosity – a desire to ask questions and wonder “What if?” for a range of scenarios. What if someone gets too close to that blade? What could happen?

Inside OTI’s 57,000-square-foot facility, rooms are designed to test an inspector’s ability to ask and answer those questions. In these rooms, trainees run through scenarios in a variety of areas on a number of potentially life-threatening hazards. One room holds a diverse selection of common industrial equipment to address issues such as guarding. In another, pipes snaking around and piled high with dust focus on industrial hygiene violations. Other rooms address fall hazards, construction site violations, arc blasts, hazardous materials and lockout/tagout issues. In each room, the equipment used by workers is available for trainees to examine.

On any given day, trainees may be asked to look at a piece of equipment and find what may be wrong. Other days, the trainees may walk into the aftermath of a workplace incident in which someone was “injured” or “killed.” “We get very creative,” OTI federal compliance training officer Dexter Noonan said of the incident investigations he and his colleagues create for students.

For circumstances that cannot be easily duplicated inside the OTI facility, the trainees take field trips to actual construction sites where they take a tour and make note of any hazards they see. Inspectors also take a class on investigative interviewing techniques. The class, taught by OTI’s own instructors, was originally designed by a group who developed interview courses for police recruits, Shields said. In the class, inspectors learn the mechanics of an interview, such as how to “read” people, he said.

In the field

These techniques could prove useful once inspectors are in the field and dealing with employers. In as little as six months after initially being hired, inspectors could be out on their own – the compliance officer’s version of a solo flight. Shields admitted new inspectors will not know everything at that point, but called every inspection they go on a “learning experience.” Shields also noted that new inspectors are not truly alone – they work out of area offices and have access to supervisors and senior-level staff for advice and help. Additionally, compliance officers do not find themselves assigned to extremely complicated cases in their first few outings. Most of them start off on “easy” cases, such as following up on a complaint, according to Shields. The more experience an inspector gets, the larger or more complicated a case he or she may be asked to handle.

“You’re not going to send someone with four months’ experience to BP Amoco,” Carter said. “The simple ones are tough enough when you’re new.”

Kaletsky said he worries that newer inspectors may be overzealous and issue more violations than perhaps necessary, and even may issue unwarranted “serious” citations. “I do know there are offices or regions where they’re really telling their own people, ‘I want more [serious violations],’” he said.

If OSHA compliance officers, whether new or veteran, go into the field with an attitude of wanting to write up a lot of citations or making every benign violation out to be the worst possible, employers may start to lose respect for OSHA, Kaletsky warned. As a result, employers may tune out what the compliance officer is telling them or appeal more citations.

“The one or two ‘rookies’ I encountered during my time seemed to be a little showy and out to prove something,” said a safety and health director in the food processing industry. The director’s general experience with OSHA inspectors has been positive, but he agreed with Kaletsky about the dangers of some inspectors “playing up” the numbers. “Sometimes [inspectors] might be better served issuing an ‘other than serious.’ Some companies might not spend so much time and effort to attempt to knock [the citation] down.” Shields shot back at those who claim OSHA inspectors are only out to cite every violation they see. “Their job is to find stuff,” he said.

“Is it their job to beat up an employer with citations? No. But there are employers out there who need that.”

When organizations claim an OSHA inspector is trumping up the citation for higher numbers, Shields said those companies may be looking to “trump down” the penalties. However, when OSHA is wrong and a citation is not accurate, Shields said the citation will be changed.

Oversight

In Indiana, Carter insisted no “numbers game” is being played in which inspectors rack up numerous citations or a high number of serious violations. If inspectors go overboard on citations, Carter said supervisors are in place to rein them in. “If you start getting out in left field with stupid little problems, then you’re going to get shot out of the saddle by your supervisor,” he said.

Every citation an inspector files must supply a “reasonable fix” for the hazard. This is especially important when it comes to the General Duty Clause. If a hazard is found but does not fall into any specific standard, the inspector may cite the employer under the General Duty Clause. With that, the inspector needs to present the employer with a “viable alternative” for safe operation, Carter said. If the inspector cannot write at least one of those alternatives, a citation cannot be issued.

Carter said inspectors in Indiana have received high marks for the job they perform, according to an anonymous “customer satisfaction” survey IOSHA offers to the workplaces it inspects. Returned surveys show no difference between reviews of veteran compliance officers and rookies, he said. “We expect our people to be professional and be polite out there and not something that reflects badly to the department,” Carter said.

To ensure that, IOSHA inspectors are measured against their job requirements at least once a year, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts together charts on individuals to compare the inspectors’ performance numbers, Carter said. As of deadline, federal OSHA had declined repeated requests to discuss its methods for how compliance officers are evaluated.

An educational experience

David Gauthier has been the fleet service specialist for the city of Chesapeake, VA, for about four years. As the man in charge of safety and auto repair for the city’s central fleet, Gauthier has dealt with his state’s occupational compliance officers numerous times throughout the years – with good experiences.

“Every time I’ve met with them, they’ve been fantastic,” he said. “They are good at explaining in detail of what they’re going to do and helping you along.” This is something Shields hopes occurs when his inspectors leave the institute – that every inspection is an educational experience for the employers.

“[Inspectors] are out there selling safety and health,” he said. “The process can work.”

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