Facebook and YouTube are populated with video clips of hilarious “accidents” – someone falling off a bike while performing a stunt, another slipping while dancing the night away, yet another getting hit in the gut with a toddler’s baseball bat. Somehow, we seem to be amused by the misfortune of others, particularly when it comes to watching a pedestrian staring at a smartphone while failing to navigate around a light pole.

Ha.

Accidents on the job, however, are no laughing matter. Not only can they cause serious injury, resulting in pain and suffering, they cost your company.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety (OSHA) division enforces workplace safety. But believe it or not, it also helps businesses to develop safety programs and offers tips on how to comply and how to prepare for and endure an inspection, should your business be targeted.

An OSHA inspection may be ordered for any number of reasons, and the agency has the right to conduct an inspection without prior notice. As a business owner, however, you have the right to require OSHA’s compliance officers to obtain a warrant before they set foot on your property.

The best way to avoid the hassle of an inspection is to voluntarily comply with all OSHA standards – if you’re vigilant, this isn’t an issue. Going above and beyond the standards by developing and implementing your own best safety management practices helps.

But say you’re contacted, regardless of your record. What’s up?

OSHA Penalties

It’s costly to do business safely, but it’s even more costly to be negligent. If your company is found in violation, penalties are steep. According to OSHA’s scale of violation type, the cost to you escalates with severity.

  • For serious, other-than-serious or posting requirements violations, the penalty is $12,675 per violation.
  • For failure to abate violations, the cost is $12,675 per day beyond the abatement date.
  • For willful or repeated violations, the cost is $126,749 per violation. These figures were adjusted for inflation as of Jan. 13, 2017.

What to expect

With millions upon millions of workplaces around the country – in every conceivable industry – it’s not likely that OSHA will zero in on your particular business. But it’s not unlikely, either, especially if your employees have experienced reportable accidents.

OSHA works triage with complaints: It prioritizes them in order of severity, and if you’re fortunate and the alleged violation is minor, OSHA may determine that your company’s situation requires an investigation by phone. If so, an agent will call you to discuss safety concerns, and will follow up with a fax that details the alleged hazards. You have five days to respond – in writing – and if your response is adequate and the person who filed the complaint is satisfied, you will have successfully avoided an on-site inspection.

But to prepare for an on-site inspection, it helps to know what to expect and how to handle it. Here’s the scoop, step by step:

Preparation. Before the OSHA compliance officer shows up, he’ll thoroughly research your company’s history in regard to safety protocols and will pull together the kinds of personal protection equipment you use, plus testing instruments, in order to assess the kinds of hazards that may be present.

Presentation of credentials. This may sound like a trivial element, but with hacking and violation of privacy cases dominating the news, it’s important: Before a compliance officer is allowed on site, they must produce appropriate credentials, including a photo ID and serial number. If this is not offered, be sure to ask.

Opening conference. OSHA’s agent will explain the reason for the visit, in detail, including such things as the scope of the inspection, walkaround procedure, and employee representation and interviews. You have the right to choose a representative to accompany the officer; employees also have the right to select a rep of their own. Both of these options are voluntary, but regardless of your decision, the officer will speak in private with employees during the inspection.

Walkaround. During this phase of the visit, OSHA’s compliance officer, accompanied by employer and employee representatives, will walk the areas of the worksite that are in question. He will inspect the site for hazards, will review worksite injury (and illness) records, and will verify that the company has displayed the required OSHA poster.

Should minor violations be identified, you may be able to take immediate corrective action. The hazard must be cited, according to law, but remediation on the spot goes a long way toward a positive report.

According to OSHA, their officers are required to minimize interruptions in normal work procedures during this walkaround, and they also must keep mum: no fair revealing trade secrets.

Closing conference. Following the “hands-on” walkaround inspection, the OSHA representative must hold a closing conference with the employer and the employee representatives to go over the findings. Possible courses of corrective action should be discussed, ranging from an informal conference with OSHA to your right to contest citations and proposed penalties. At the same time, the compliance officer should also offer information on consultation services and employee rights.

Common hazards

According to OSHA’s Landscape and Horticultural Services division, the most common potential hazards on the jobsite are:

  • Sprains and strains — caused by manual handling of landscaping tools and equipment
  • Electrical hazards — caused by working in proximity to overhead power lines
  • Noise — caused by powered equipment such as chainsaws, chippers and trenchers
  • Heat stress — caused by working outdoors for extensive periods of time
  • Falls — caused by working from bucket trucks or working in trees
  • “Struck-by” incidents — caused by working around motorized vehicles or overhead hazards

What happens next?

Should an OSHA inspector find serious hazards on site or evidence of other violations of OSHA standards, the agency may issue fines and citations. This must occur within six months of the violation’s occurrence – not necessarily the date of the inspection.

If your company is issued a citation, it must describe which standards and requirements were alleged to have been violated, a description or list of proposed penalties, if any, and a deadline for remediation of the hazards.

Like the reasons for inspection, violations of OSHA standards are categorized according to severity. The categories include willful, serious, “other-than-serious,” de minimis, failure to abate and repeated. Recommended penalties may be reduced for small businesses, as well as for those employers who’ve shown a good-faith effort to remediate the hazard. Remember this when you’re participating in the walkaround – if a minor hazard is identified and you take immediate and sufficient action, OSHA will look favorably upon your actions.

And don’t forget that you have the right to appeal a citation. You’ll be given the opportunity to confer with an OSHA Area Director, and you may be able to negotiate a settlement agreement to eliminate the hazard.

On the other hand, you have 15 days following receipt of a citation and proposed penalties to formally contest them – in writing.

Common Violations

In 2005 (remember, this is a federal agency, and statistics are rarely up to date), OSHA reported that the majority of violations were discovered under the personal protective equipment category. If your best practices program requires such equipment — and it should — it’s not enough to simply suggest its use. Failure to provide the equipment, or failure to ensure that employees are using it properly, can result in injury and a pretty stiff fine.

Second among the top violations was the failure to provide appropriate hazard communication. Should any employee suffer an injury, and it can be proved that the company did not require safety training and/or clearly accessible information such as safety posters, that’s another fine.

Third place for violations is an interesting one: violation of the “General Duty Clause,” which states, “Each employer (1) shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees; and (2) shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this act.” Further, “Each employee shall comply with occupational safety and health standards and all rules, regulations, and orders issued pursuant to this Act which are applicable to his own actions and conduct.”

Translated, that means the employer must provide a safe place to work, and the employee must act responsibly.

Further down the list of violations, we find the expected: vehicle-mounted elevating/rotating work platforms; eye and face protection; occupational head protection, and so on.

What’s the best route?

Safety first. Comply with standards set forth not only by OSHA, but by your own stringent protocols that go above and beyond. Protecting your employees from hazards is protecting your business.