By Sean Stumbaugh
Opening the day’s mail, you come across a certified letter. As you scan the contents, your heart begins to beat a little faster and your mind races. OSHA has received a complaint about your department and is notifying you of an impending inspection. Like so much government communication, the notice is both vague and vaguely threatening. You wrack your brain for what could have been the impetus of the complaint. What did we do wrong? Will we pass the inspection?
The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created by Congress under the Occupational Safety and Health Act in December 1970. The original legislation applied to all 50 states and covered workers in the private sector.
In 1972, individual states began adopting what is known as a “state plan.” Once approved by federal OSHA, state plans extend coverage to state and local government workers. Currently, there are 28 states or territories that have some form of a state plan. Each state plan applies to government employers and employees, but some states rely on the federal OSHA standards to cover the private sector.
Confused yet? The truth is that you don’t need to know all the intricacies of federal and state OSHA plans. But you do need to understand what rules apply in your state and which agency will arrive when OSHA comes to “visit.”
I have a little experience when it comes to an OSHA visit. When I was a training chief we received an internal complaint about one of our training practices. The OSHA inspector made notification that they were coming, but did not tell us what the complaint was about (OSHA complaints are typically anonymous). They did tell us that they were going to review our respiratory protection practices and wanted to see records for training, fit testing and maintenance of our self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). They also wanted to inspect some of the SCBA and turnout gear issued by the department. We had about a week’s notice and were able to gather the information requested prior to the inspection.
There is a long and boring political story that goes along with this episode regarding the source of the complaint; I will spare you the details. The result of the investigation was that our program was solid and we were doing things correctly; however, we did miss one important step when it came to an individual employee. For that mistake we were fined by OSHA the minimum fine that was in force at that time. We appealed the finding and the fine was waived because our program was otherwise in solid compliance with regulation. We didn’t have to pay the money but the deviation from regulation remained on our official record.
As this example shows, the key to successfully passing an OSHA inspection is preparing your organization prior to any such inspection. Understanding occupational safety rules and instituting practices of compliance must be done as a continual practice, as opposed to a reaction to a complaint. We teach our firefighters to prevent disorientation or entrapment by making good decisions before engaging. We never want to discourage them from calling a Mayday, but it is always better to not get into a Mayday situation in the first place.
When the OSHA inspector calls, you are already in trouble; that is the appropriate time to call an administrative “Mayday.”
Steps to Prepare
What can you do to prepare? First, make sure you know what topics are “hot button” issues in the world of occupational health and safety. You should appoint a subject matter expert in health and safety (no matter what size your department is) and designate them as the Health and Safety Officer (H&SO). To the extent possible, provide this person with the education they need to be successful. Pay for their memberships in professional organizations that deal with health and safety. Empower them to make recommendations—and then listen to their advice.
Next, institute safety policies that comply with government regulations. You must know what laws exist that regulate the fire service. And even if you are in a state where OSHA does not apply to your personnel, consider instituting OSHA-compliant policy and procedure as a best practice. If something goes wrong, even if the rules don’t “technically” apply, you will still be judged by what is understood as best practice in the industry.
Here is a partial list of some of the topics that relate to OSHA regulation:
• Respiratory Protection (Two-In/Two-Out)
• Hazardous Materials Response
• Communicable Diseases
• Hazard Communication
• Hearing Protection and Noise Control
• Personal Protective Equipment
• Hazardous Energy Control (Lockout/Tagout)
This is only a partial list. If you’re not comfortable with your current methods of handling any of these topics, you may have some work to do.
Finally, get your department and your people ready for an inspection. Educate them on the authority that OSHA carries and prepare them to be transparent and cooperative. Delegate responsibility to your H&SO to prepare for and accompany the inspector during the inspection. Also remember: “Anything you say can and will be used against you.” Answer all questions truthfully but don’t talk about things you don’t know. Refer technical questions to the subject matter expert (SME) on the topic within your organization.
Above all, be compliant; take your lumps if necessary. The ultimate goal is to make the necessary changes to keep your people safe, not “hide” from your responsibility and just “pass” the inspection. There is nothing more important than this; everyone goes home.
SEAN STUMBAUGH is a management services representative for Lexipol. He retired in 2015 after 32 years in the American fire service, serving as battalion chief for the Cosumnes Fire Department in Elk Grove, Calif., as well as the El Dorado Hills (Calif.) Fire Department and the Freedom (Calif.) Fire District. Sean has a master’s degree in Leadership and Disaster Preparedness from Grand Canyon University, a bachelor’s degree in Fire Science from Columbia Southern University, and an associate degree from Cabrillo College in Fire Protection Technology. In addition to his formal education, he is a Certified Fire Officer, Chief Officer, and Instructor III in the California State Fire Training certification program. Sean has taught numerous state fire training courses and has been an adjunct professor with Cosumnes River College in Sacramento.