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There are few things worse for an employer than to receive a letter or phone call from OSHA requesting information about the company’s compliance with workplace safety regulations.

But many employers either don’t handle their encounters with OSHA well or they fail to properly report serious injuries that have taken place on their worksites. Whatever the case, there is a right way and a wrong way to deal with occupational safety and health authorities.

The right way can make the process easier on the employer, while the wrong way can set them up for frustration, confrontation and heavier fines.

The head of Cal/OSHA’s heat illness prevention unit recently gave an employer outreach presentation on the steps to take if you want to get cited by Cal/OSHA.

Follow the advice at your own risk:

  1. Don’t answer If OSHA contacts you by letter, a complaint referral or by phone, don’t respond. Of course if you do respond, the matter can often be dealt with over the phone or by submitting a written response.
    Respond to inquiries promptly and courteously if you want fair treatment. But if you simply fail to respond, it is a sure-fire way to receive an inspection.
    Sometimes, however, if OSHA has received a complaint, it will likely want to conduct an inspection of your workplace to verify if the alleged conditions exist.
  1. Don’t reportor file a report late for a fatality or serious injury. Doing that results in an automatic penalty of $5,000. Remember, you have eight hours to report a workplace fatality or serious injury to Cal/OSHA after learning of the incident.
    The Cal/OSHA Appeals Board may reduce that penalty if an employer files late, depending on how late they are. But if an employer fails to report at all, it can expect to pay the full amount. Remember: a serious injury is one that requires hospitalization for more than 24 hours other than for medical observation, or if an employee “suffers a loss of any member of the body or suffers any serious degree of permanent disfigurement.”
  1. Fail to comply with document requests. Don’t think that ignoring a document request by OSHA will make the problem disappear. If you can promptly produce the documents requested, including your Injury and Illness Prevention Program (IIPP), it will go a long way to making smooth an encounter with OSHA.
    To make sure that all of your supervisors and managers are on board, put in place transparent procedures to follow if contacted by OSHA. Top priority is informing top management about correspondence with the authorities.
    And don’t worry: you don’t have to keep all of your documents on site. If you have locations in the field, you can keep your workplace safety documents in your office and e-mail them to the OSHA officer.
    One exception is your heat illness prevention program, copies of which must be located on site.
  1. Be unaware of the IIPP requirement. This also includes having employees who are not aware of your workplace safety program.
    Express bewilderment about an IIPP and you can bet that OSHA will want to look at your safety training records and talk to your employees about specific parts of your IIPP.
  2. Provide a generic IIPP. If you want to get dinged, download a generic version of an IIPP from the Internet and present it as your own when asked by OSHA. Even better, don’t include your company name anywhere in the document.
    Another way to land in hot water is to produce another employer’s IIPP, even if you are in a dual-employer situation.
  1. Ignore OSHA regulations for your industry. During a site visit, OSHA will look for hazards, employee exposure, “process flow” and the presence of required elements of relevant regulations. The Division of Occupational Safety and Health will document both compliance and non-compliance, take samples and lots of photos. The division will cite an employer that isn’t evaluating the hazards specific to its worksites.

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