By: Dan Scungio, MT (ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ)
After 40 years of no fine increases, the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) passed a law which would allow them to increase penalty rates every year for inflation. That annual increase began in 2015, and the fines have been creeping up every year since. Today, a single violation can cost a laboratory $13,653. That may seem like a great deal of money, but those fine amounts can actually be much higher.
OSHA inspections are conducted by trained safety professionals, and they may come to your site for a variety of reasons with little or no notice. They may come to investigate a recent employee accident, or they may have been notified of a situation which causes imminent danger to employees. They may also be inspecting your site based on a complaint. OSHA also performs programmed, scheduled, or follow-up inspections of certain high-hazard facilities – hospitals fall into that class.
It is important to know how to handle an on-site inspection. If someone comes to your area and identifies themselves as an OSHA inspector, the first thing you should do is request to see their identification. There have been people who have impersonated OSHA inspectors, and they are there to get money! Look for a photo ID or check with the nearest state or federal OSHA office to verify the inspector’s identity. Escort the properly-identified inspector to your manager or to your facility’s administration area. When OSHA is in the building, all facility executives need to be aware of it.
OSHA is legally authorized to conduct workplace inspections to enforce health and safety standards, so it is usually best to allow them to inspect if they request it. That said, you do have the right to require the inspector to obtain a search warrant before allowing them in, but as you can imagine, this will give an inspector the wrong idea about what you may or may not be hiding. This course of action is not advised.
The inspector will always be accompanied by a representative of your employer, and their next steps will be a walk-through of the laboratory to look for safety hazards and to talk to employees. The inspector may talk to staff, take notes, and take pictures. An OSHA inspector could ask if an employee is familiar with lab safety policies and procedures. They may ask what an employee would do in the event of an emergency (exposure, fire, chemical spill, etc), and whether or not they are aware of the hazards in the workplace.
If the inspector points out safety violations on site, do not agree to them. That can be taken as an admission of wrong-doing and could incur a fine later. If violations can be corrected on site, do so immediately, but understand that there may still be a citation.
An OSHA inspector can never suggest penalty amounts or collect money during their visit. They will conduct a closing conference to discuss their findings and let you know when to expect a written report. Fines, if any, will be paid after a final report is sent.
A fine can be given for each single safety violation per day, and amounts depend on the type of violation incurred. Violations classified as Serious, Other Than Serious, and Failure to Abate (repeat violations) all incur the same penalty amount, $13,653. However, if a single violation is known to have occurred for seven days, the total possible fine goes up to $95,571. As an example, a histologist works in the lab and is called to pick up a specimen on the unit. He does not remove his lab coat when leaving the laboratory. If that error is observed three times that day, the fine may be $40,959. If records show the histologist has been trained in proper PPE use, the violation becomes classified as “willful.” A single willful act can be fined at a rate of $136,532. Since he erred three times, the total fine can be $409,596.
Not all laboratories are fined the full amount allowed by OSHA for violations. The inspector may fine less if he sees the lab is earnestly trying to follow regulations and works quickly to abate issues. The size of the organization may affect fine amounts as well, OSHA’s goal is not to put an employer out of business. A good working history with OSHA can help reduce fines as well.
A final report may take up to six months, and it will be sent by OSHA via certified mail. Be sure any responses to OSHA complaints include notes, documentation, and photographs if necessary. Citations need to be posted in the department for at least three days or until the corrections are made. Employers have up to 25 days to submit to OSHA an abatement of the safety issues. If the abatement will take a long time (greater than 90 days), the first abatement progress report is due to OSHA within 55 days. If an organization desires to contest a penalty, a notice of intent to contest citation must be sent within 15 days of receiving report.
OSHA penalties can be severe, and an inspection can be nerve-wracking. It is important to remain ready – be sure your lab safety program is up to speed and that regulations are being followed in order to keep staff safe. If an inspector arrives, remain calm, respond quickly, and communicate well. A lab that is ready in those ways may make it through an inspection with no issues discovered.
Check out Dan's webinar on elearn.nsh.org, Stump the Safety Man, from the 2020 Virtual Convention.
OSHA web site: https://www.osha.gov/penalties