Companies may save with help from OSHA

Dramatic safety improvements are made

Occupational health managers are dramatically improving safety with the help of a seemingly unlikely ally: the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). However, some employers might be reluctant to invite inspectors onsite to put safety processes under the microscope because they fear non-compliant areas could result in violations and fines.

This is a complete misconception, because OSHA's on-site consultation program is completely separate from the enforcement side, stresses spokesperson Kelly P. Rowe. "The services are delivered on a confidential basis," says Rowe. "The only grounds for referral to enforcement are when an employer refuses to immediately correct an imminently dangerous situation or refuses to correct a serious hazard in a timely manner."

In fact, companies participating in the consultation program can qualify for a one-year exemption from routine OSHA inspections, and during the consultation inspection process, no citations are issued or penalties proposed, says Rowe.

Still, many employers approach OSHA inspections with a sense of dread, with the mindset "what are they going to find?" says Curtis Holmes, plant manager for Juneau-based Alaskan Brewing Co. "There is still that stigma that if the OSHA inspector comes in and finds any violations, they'll either fine you or shut you down until you fix the problems," he says.

On-site consultations are given free of charge to employers, usually within 30 days of a request.

After contacting your state OSHA office to ask for a consultative visit, a representative will come to your facility for a walk-through, will ask questions about current practices and policies, make comments, and provide candid feedback. Employers then receive a list of recommendations for changes.

Occupational health managers report dramatic safety improvements have resulted from these voluntary inspections.

"It can't cause you any problems. It can only make you better," says Leah Skaggs, RN, an occupational health nurse at Honeywell Aerospace's LORI Heat Transfer Operation in Tulsa, OK.

Another pair of eyes

At Alaskan Brewing, voluntary OSHA inspections have been an annual occurrence since the company started in 1986. "Instead of waiting for OSHA to come by, we try to be upfront and ask them if we're doing things right," says Holmes. "That was typically something that wasn't done up here in Alaska; it's pretty rare that people would call and want a voluntary inspection."

An OSHA consultation recently helped Honeywell's Tulsa site to achieve Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) certification, which confirms a company has best practices in place to prevent work related injury and illness to employees."I would definitely recommend this process for companies who don't have corporate audit teams in place," says Skaggs. "And if you are considering VPP certification, then it is a must."

By working with OSHA consultants since 1998, El Dorado, AR-based Anthony Forest Products Company has spent approximately $50,000 on safety improvements, but has saved more than $1 million in worker's compensation costs, estimates Kelly Olivier, the company's environmental, health and safety coordinator. Since 2001, the El Dorado laminating plant has logged over 630,000 work hours with no lost time due to injuries. In 1998, the facility's days away, restricted, and/or transferred (DART) case rate was 2.34, and it is now 0.00.

Safety changes made as a result of OSHA's recommendations included developing proper start-up and shutdown procedures; safe driving criteria for powered industrial trucks; upgrading stairs, walkways, and platforms by adding proper railing systems and toe boards and performing personal protective equipment assessments to identify proper safety equipment for various jobs, says Olivier.

"We already had a safety program in place, but wanted another pair of eyes looking at our operations, to beef up our safety programs even more," Olivier says. "We wanted to eliminate any potential incidents by going above and beyond in our plant locations. When you bring other professionals from outside, they may see things that none of us have seen."

Here are some of the actual recommendations made by OSHA consultants:

  • Minor problems that can be fixed immediately.

Sometimes violations are so minor that they can be fixed immediately, such as a burned out light bulb on an exit sign. During Alaskan Brewing's site visit, the consultant noted that the load rating of the mezzanine storage area needed to be labeled conspicuously.

"We were able to obtain the load rating and label the mezzanine appropriately before the consultant left the building," says Heather Conlin, human resources/special projects manager.

  • Signage.

Adding signs is a common recommendation arising from a consultative visit, Conlin says. "Some may view this type of feedback as unnecessarily regulatory, but we have found that signage raises awareness," she says. The company was asked to put in load rating signs on decks, forklift awareness signs in high traffic areas, exit signs on all doors if they open to other areas that lead to an outside exit door, chemical awareness signs, and fire extinguisher signs.

  • Compliance with electrical guidelines.

At Honeywell, the consultant found some blocked electrical panels and others that needed to be clearly labeled on the front. Also, it was noted that electrical extension cords cannot be used except on a temporary basis, so conduit had to be installed.

"We had quite a bit of conduit laid for that purpose, which was pretty expensive, but it was definitely a problem we needed to take care of," says Skaggs.

  • Additional barriers.

At Anthony Forest, OSHA recommended adding additional barriers such as guards, rails, and toe boards through all the plants, reports Olivier.

"Some of the equipment already had guarding on it, but when OSHA came in, we looked at all the areas again as a precautionary measure, to see where there could be potential fall incidents," he says.

  • Purchase of new equipment.

OSHA consultants advised Alaskan Brewing to buy a tank cleaning machine so that employees would no longer have to climb inside beer tanks to clean them by hand.

The consultant explained that the company would no longer have to worry about requirements for confined spaces, and employees would be safer. "The guys still open the tanks and inspect them, but this machine now cleans the tanks. The equipment cost approximately $2,500, but the savings in manpower paid for the equipment quickly," says Holmes. "The brewer is now able to accomplish other tasks while the machine does the work."

In addition to the confined space dangers, the employee had exposure to chemicals while cleaning the tanks and also had the risk of climbing in and out of the tank, says Holmes.

During a recent OSHA visit at Alaskan Brewing, confined space issues came up again, however, because the company recently had purchased a new grain dryer system that required operator entry for annual inspections. "We also found out that the crawl spaces under our tanks now qualified for confined space even though they had not been looked at during previous inspections," says Holmes. The consultant recommended that a confined spaced gas meter be purchased to check for oxygen, carbon monoxide and flammable gases. "We don't use it very often, but it was needed because we don't have anybody local for doing that type of testing," says Holmes. "The meter was an expensive addition to our safety equipment, but now the employers can feel confident that when they enter a confined space, it is safe for them to do so."

  • New processes.

An employee was nearly killed when a fuel truck exploded at Boise, ID-based Western Aircraft, which has 150 employees. Western is an aircraft-services company and authorized service center, certified aircraft repair station, and worldwide distributor of parts and avionics. As a result of this wake-up call, the company began working with OSHA consultants. As a result, today the company's DART rate is 0.00.

An annual review process ensures that all required training and written programs are up to date, reports Terry G. Hess, safety and training manager. Through this process, it was discovered that some employees are exposed to bloodborne pathogens, and therefore, the Hepatitis B vaccine must be offered at no charge to those employees that are potentially exposed.

"To our surprise, when we surveyed our employees, over 50 of them asked for the vaccine," says Hess. "After training the employees on proper use of personal protective equipment and offering the vaccine, we feel that our folks are now protected."