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Guest Columnist

I thought I saw something move in the shadows. Whatever it was, it was big. My heart began to race. It was watching me... my every move. I knew what it was, and I had seen its devastation before. In vain, I looked around for a way to escape but knew there was none.

My life began to flash before my eyes — family reunions at Grandma's, hunting and fishing with Dad, the day I met my wife. Then it happened: the most hideous, abhorrent beast that could ever exist was nearly upon me. It was huge, bearing teeth, claws and an ink pen. Spewing regulation after regulation, with no conscience. Ravaging general contractors, mauling subcontractors and insensitively writing citation after citation. It was our worst nightmare.

Will it return? Is anyone safe!?!

Likely, this allegory is nearly word-for-word what your sentiment would be with respect to an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspector visiting your job site. No one likes the possibility of receiving costly fines for safety infractions. That being the case, how does purposefully inviting OSHA to your job site grab you? Some would sooner invite Freddy Krueger to their child's birthday party than invite OSHA to their job site. Well, that's precisely what I've done. Crazy? Maybe, but let me explain.

OSHA has had "the beast" reputation since the '70s, and some of it may be deserved. But like any successful behavior-based safety program, there has to be the positive side accentuated, not solely "the beast" mentality employed. OSHA figured this fact out as well and wants to try working with companies rather than against them. If OSHA can accomplish this, obviously it would make their job easier.

So, how is OSHA going to convince companies to come out from hiding from this "beast" and work with them? They are a masonry company's worst nightmare, so no one is going to work with them unless there is something in it for them, right? Here's their offer: first and foremost, if OSHA finds anything wrong, they will not issue any citations or penalties. Secondly, OSHA will offer professional services, such as an industrial hygienist — which would normally cost thousands — all for free.

Firsthand Account
I had been on the road for a couple of hours already as I pulled up on the job at 7:30 a.m. I parked behind a little metallic gray PT Cruiser (I knew it had to belong to "the beast"). I have to admit, I was a little uneasy. I had read information on the Consultation Program and had spoken to the consultant on the phone at length, but this was my first encounter on a job site.

I immediately received a warm welcome from a man who seemed as, or maybe more, nervous than I was (or maybe it was the excitement for his job). He was very quick to point out that he "did not work on the enforcement side of OSHA." He was simply an industrial hygienist sent to take air samples for silica exposure, which is what I had requested.

(A point to be made here is that under the program you can limit the inspection or testing to specific operations. He could have looked at our hearing conservation program and set up testing for noise exposure, but that wasn't what I invited him out to do. Also, a company can set up a consultation that provides a thorough inspection of everything on a job site. When this is done they almost guarantee that you will pass an OSHA inspection; they will not issue citations or penalties for violations; and they will not report violations to "enforcement." What I was interested in was the sampling for silica exposure, so that's all they did.)

After our opening dialog we went to each employee who would be wearing the pumps, explained what we were doing and told them they would be notified of the results. The small pumps were calibrated and then mounted on their waists with a cyclone filter, or "sniffer," attached near their areas of inhalation. We hooked up the saw operator, a laborer who was carrying the cut block from the saw to the masons, and the laborer operating the concrete and mortar mixers. Every 30 minutes or so the consultant would walk by and check the devices to make sure they were still working. When the day was done, he removed the equipment, packed it up and drove away in his Cruiser. All in all, it was a painless procedure.

Why We Did It
Recently, a lot has been said about the dangers of silica, and OSHA may come out with a new silica standard this year. I regularly read of citations being written due to silica exposures. It's hard, if not impossible, to fight, alter or manage an issue that you know nothing about. We needed to be educated on what amounts of contaminates we were exposed to and what OSHA expected under those circumstances. I wanted them to do the sampling and to hear recommendations from them.

Here's why: If we receive an inspection and the inspector says anything about silica I can say, "You, OSHA, did the testing, made the recommendations, and we're doing exactly what you recommended and have the documentation to prove it." The whole issue is defused. Pure and simple, knowledge is power.

The most important reason we did it is because, as a company, we want to do it right. We want to be compliant because, in turn, in will help keep our employees free from injury. Which in turn will keep our people happy and more productive. Which in turn will keep our workers comp costs down, etc. A comprehensive, effective safety program can be a profit center! And if OSHA is willing to help that happen by providing free services, I'll take it.

The Negatives
Some could say I'm painting too rosy of a picture. "There had to be some negatives," they'll say. In that case, I will give you the full story.

The first negative aspect is you have to tell the general contractor what you are doing. Some, I'm told, don't shine to bringing someone associated with OSHA on their job site. That was not my experience. I've asked the consultant out on three different occasions now, and the general contractors have welcomed the visits each time.

The second negative — if it can be considered such — is that if the consultant sees something that is putting someone in danger, he or she is obligated to ask that it be corrected. This really shouldn't be considered a negative. Any good superintendent, foreman, safety director, competent person or any employee should do the same thing. Asking that a hazard be removed is a moral obligation.

Again, the consultant is not enforcement. Case in point, on this first visit the consultant saw a propane tank being used by a subcontractor that was quite close to where we were working, and he asked that it be moved further away from the scaffold and our employees. If this were a real OSHA inspection, the violation would have likely resulted in a citation being written, labeled as "serious," and a hefty penalty imposed. Yet, in this case, there was nothing written down at all. It's forgotten. Are you starting to get the idea that this beast is much tamer than your first impression?

The final thing that some may think to be a negative is that if the results of your testing show you to have "serious hazards," the consultant will outline corrective measures for you to take. You will then need to fax or mail in a form stating that the hazards have been corrected. There is no follow-up visit to see if they have been corrected, simply faith that you will do what you said you would do.

Is that so bad? As professionals, with our employees' well-being at heart, shouldn't that be our goal anyway?

Positives
The following positive aspects are pretty self-explanatory:

  • The service is delivered by well-trained professionals.

  • The service is free, largely funded by OSHA. Hiring an outside firm with equal credentials can cost thousands of dollars.

  • No citations are issued or penalties proposed.

  • It is confidential. Your name, your firm's name and any information you provide about your workplace, plus any unsafe or unhealthy working conditions that the consultant uncovers, will not be reported to the OSHA inspection staff.

  • The service provides training and education for you and your employees.

  • If you have an exemplary safety program and meet federal criteria, you may be recommended for a one- to two-year exclusion from OSHA programmed inspections.

  • And the most important reason: It can only help to make your company more safe and compliant.

I'll Do It Again
To date, we've had an OSHA consultant out on three different occasions. We could have stopped after the first, but we plan to invite them out to utilize the service even more. It's not a bad experience at all; in fact, it's been very helpful. We are better informed and have far less liability by having OSHA directly involved. We have saved a lot of money by using the consultation service — not just the direct cost of the industrial hygienist, but the potential future lawsuits, workers comp claims and possible OSHA citations that we may have prevented.

You may view OSHA as the hideous beast we described in the introduction, but the consultation service is more like being in a petting zoo — controlled, educational and maybe enjoyable.

If you want more information on the subject, you can reach me personally at the following contact information or visit: www.osha.gov/dcsp/smallbusiness/consult.html.







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