Free OSHA consultation can help avoid violations

Results are usually confidential

Many employers and occupational health providers are unaware of a potentially valuable service offered by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Just for asking, OSHA will send inspectors out to poke around a work site and alert you to potential problems — without citing the employer for any deficiencies the inspectors find.

The program is called the OSHA Consultation Service. It is funded by OSHA, but the inspectors actually are provided by your state’s government. The service is geared toward smaller employers, but anyone can request an inspection.

The consultation service is an opportunity to see how OSHA would view conditions in the workplace without risking the fines that normally would accompany a critique by OSHA. Even if the state inspectors find fault with the employer’s safety program, that information usually is not reported to the inspection arm of OSHA.

To provide as much confidentiality as possible, OSHA inspection staff are not even informed that you have requested the consultation service. There is no charge for the service.

The service has been available for 20 years. OSHA consultants made 24,708 visits last year, including repeat visits to the same work site.

All you have to do is ask

Because the consultation is voluntary, you must specifically request it by contacting your local OSHA office by phone or letter, explains Melody Sands, MS, chief of the division of consultation programs with OSHA in Washington, DC. A consultant will contact the employer to discuss specific needs and make a date for the visit. The timing of the visit will be based in part on the consultant’s assessment of how hazardous the workplace is likely to be. A prime focus of the consultation program is to help employers in more hazardous industries.

OSHA encourages employers to allow a review of the entire safety and health situation, but the employer can choose to limit the scope of the consultation to specific areas.

The consultants will conduct an on-site inspection, much as an OSHA inspector would, and point out hazards. They will suggest general approaches or options for solving a safety or health problem and identify various types of help that might be available. They also will help you develop or maintain an effective safety and health program. (See related story, above, for details of how the inspection works.)

"The outcome depends a lot on the individual employer, but it is very rare that we find everything is in compliance, and there are no hazards to address," Sands says. "Many hazards are not apparent to the employer, and the fact that they want a consultation sometimes means they have doubts about their workplace."

The consultants will not issue citations, propose penalties, or report violations to the OSHA enforcement staff. They cannot guarantee that the employer will "pass" a subsequent OSHA inspection.

Sands notes that the OSHA Consultation Service carries some obligation for the employer. Before the inspection takes place, the employer must agree to correct any serious hazards or imminent danger within a certain time frame. If the employer refuses to follow through on that obligation, the inspectors will report the hazard to the OSHA enforcement division for appropriate action. That has happened in less than 1% of consultations so far, Sands says.

"As long as you are working within the agreed-upon time frame to correct problems, we have no interest in reporting the employer for citations and penalties," Sands says. "Interim protection might be necessary. You can’t let a machine go unguarded."