How to Be Ready for OSHA

Either the safety agency itself, or a private consultant, can help you identify hazards and avoid possible penalties — before you're surprised by a "real" enforcement inspection. April 20, 2007

I have a 5-15 man cabinet shop/operation in New Orleans. Word around town is that OSHA has amended their policy that they can, and are, performing surprise inspections in shops as small as 2-3 men. My sources say that they are not writing warnings, but rather actual citations that are very costly. I heard they popped in on a guy house who was spraying lacquer in his garage and wrote him up for over $5000 worth of fines. I have to assume that the state of LA is desperate for money due to Katrina and is taking it out on the private sector (shops and contractors) that they figure are swimming in the bucks right now due to the increased work that we all have. While business is up, I don't feel like turning over my increased profits to OSHA.

Can anyone give me a list of things that they may be looking for in a shop of my size? I know that there is a whole list of posts, safety info, unemployment info, etc. that they expect us to have posted for all employees to see. I know I am lacking in this area as I have nothing posted other than my occupational license. Also, what products do I require MSDS's on? We do not spray in our shop. I outsource all my finishing work. The only flammable we use is Famowood thinner, and we may have a gallon of mineral spirits and/or lacquer thinner around just for cleanup. Oh, we probably have 5 gallons contact cement. How picky can these guys be? I have bleach in the bathroom for cleaning. Do I need a MSDS on it too?

What other things do they look for? Electric wires, saw guards, missing switch plates? I plan to make a run to Depot tomorrow to stock up on safety equipment and stuff. What else do I need? What else could they hassle me for?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor S:
You might give them a call and ask them to come do a site survey. Not sure if they still do this, but in the 80's they would come out on request and tell you what was wrong (without citations), and follow up with a real visit.

They will look at everything you have listed and more. Returns on radial arm saws, cords and hoses in walkways, frayed ends on extension cords, replacement ends on cords (not molded), walkways blocked by stacks of wood, exit signs not posted or inoperable, fire extinguishers not serviced, etc.

MSDS on anything in your building that needs it, posted somewhere (several somewheres) with high visibility. This includes the thinner, con cement, bleach, and liquid White-out. Yes, I said White-out. Look at the label - most items that require MSDS will say so.

From contributor P:
The list is too long. As mentioned, anything and everything. One thing often overlooked on equipment is the on/off switches - they must be magnetic starters. The concept is, if there is a power failure and the machines shut off, they should not automatically restart when the power comes back on. Toggle type switches are not acceptable because of this reason.

You should also get a qualified storage cabinet for any flammables or even cans of paint or even one spray can. They will measure noise levels. Instruct your workers, or your trusted worker, to make sure any loud equipment, like a planer, is not running when any inspections are taking place. It would be best if you set up a signal system (like a warning) to the men in the shop before you take any inspectors in. Have all workers stop working and go on a break until you come to them and tell them it is okay to go back to work (regardless of time passed). This avoids any activity which the inspectors may find fault with. It’s like the play dead concept. Don't give them more than they already have.

Try not to answer any questions. Tell them you have an attorney and would like to consult with him before answering any questions.

Once they came into my place and asked me "how many workers do you have?"
Answer: 9
Q: Counting yourself?
A: With me, 10.
Q: You qualify!

I will never forget it. It's their game and you don't know the rules, so how can you play, how can you make a move, how can you possibly win? Today they can inspect a one man shop. Their only funding comes from the fines they levy, and that piece of information tells you more than anything else. It's unfortunate that these types of things make compliance your full time business, rather than running a cabinet shop. You can also refuse them entry and ask them to come back at a later prearranged time.

From contributor M:
I called OSHA a couple of years ago to see if I was a candidate for inspection. At that time I was solo. He said that they only inspect smaller shops when there was a complaint, and if I have employees. That was a couple of years ago, but I can't see how OSHA would apply to a 1 man shop.

And as for the guy spraying lacquer in his garage, he should be written up. I have had to deal with the fire department a couple of times over spraying at my shop (industrial zoning). They forced me to spray in a booth. I am thankful that I have a friend that permits me to do this. But I no longer put my neighbors at risk. And pretty stupid, if you ask me, that a guy was willing to risk his house and the entire contents for the cost of finish work.

From contributor J:
If you react defensively (“let me speak to my attorney first”), you are only asking for trouble. The only way to deal with OSHA is proactively: call them before they call you. They with either say you are too small, or they will recommend a site visit. In a site visit, you are only financially liable for serious paperwork errors (such as missing 300 logs, missing MSDS) or imminent hazards in the workplace. They will coach you on how to correct your errors, and will give you time to do so, maybe up to several weeks, except serious hazards may have to be corrected immediately, but at least you won't be surprised by a visit out of the blue. Take your pick: be proactive and avoid fines, or get surprised and pay lots of fines. It's really a no-brainer.

From contributor B:
A fellow cabinetmaker got a visit from OSHA after an accident, so of course everything was gone through. One thing that was a surprise was on the fire extinguishers, he had not been making monthly checks and signing the back of the tag - that cost him $1,000 per extinguisher.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all the input! I think I will go ahead and put in a request for a site survey provided they will do this and assure me that I will not be cited, only educated. I want to be in compliance, and have no problem spending a few bucks to do so. I just dread the thought of a surprise inspection by an inspector who may have woken up on the wrong side of the bed.

From contributor W:
In some areas, OSHA has an inspection section alone. Then they have a compliance or regulatory section inspectors. Two different functions. Maybe they have the same in your area. Check to see which one you should call. Maybe they are same inspectors, but here they are two different entities...

From contributor F:
This is one reason why so many jobs went overseas to China. OSHA would have a field day in China or Mexico. It's no wonder why so many shops in my area (at least half) are on private property and not listed in the phone book. Mexico isn't the only corrupt country in North America.

From contributor J:
It doesn't matter which entity inspects you - you still have to fix the hazards, etc. or you are in deep water. On the non-critical stuff, they will give you a list of recommendations.

From contributor Y:
We have hired a Safety Consulting Company that comes in once a month for OSHA required training and inspections. They keep our records up to date. You need to have the AWAIR program in place, a company Right to Know/Hazard Communication program in place, a Bloodborn program, and a Lockout/tagout program in place just to name a few. There is also an Emergency Response Team that you need to have in case of an emergency like a fire.

From contributor H:
I was told by OSHA that my size shop (5 employees) would not be visited unless there was an injury or safety complaint. I called my state occupational safety department and requested an inspection. It was a positive thing, but schedule it for a slow time and be ready to spend some money. I thought I had all the bases covered but did not. I was given 30 days to correct 8 different things - none were equipment related. The surprise - if not completed on time, it would serve as a complaint to OSHA.

From contributor J:
The first visit creates the most amount of work of any of them.

From contributor I:
I am in VA and have experienced several "voluntary compliance inspections." Whatever they find out of compliance must be fixed within 30 days, and they may physically re-check, but usually just want a form returned that certifies that it's done. Anything not fixed will be turned over to the enforcement division.

From contributor L:
I've had two OSHA inspections; first one voluntary. I called for it. Most of the problems were paperwork. It took me a little over a month to get it all together. They gave me an extension of time when I told them I was having trouble meeting the 4-week deadline. Second inspection was a surprise a week after I fired an employee. The inspector was surprised I had almost all the paperwork up to date. The shop inspection went well with only one suggested change. He asked permission to interview employees without my presence - granted. We had only one missing piece of paper, a form 300 from 3 years back. We later found the paper and offered to send a copy but he didn't require it. No citations or fines. If I hadn't had the voluntary, I would have been in deep ----! There are always things they could get you for if the inspection becomes confrontational. Do you have lanes painted on your floors?

From contributor U:
You guys have my attention. How does one go about having an inspection or consultation without even involving OSHA? I kind of don’t want to invite the devil over for dinner, if you know what I mean. I would like to be in compliance for that dreadful day. But if I am not on their radar, I sure don’t want to get on it. What are the links between OSHA and local shops? 5-15 men. Where do they get info on my company? Is it classification, zoning…?

From contributor L:
If someone gets seriously hurt in your shop, you will be on their screen. If you fire someone and they are pissed at you, they can turn you in on a complaint; it doesn't have to be a valid complaint. OSHA gets most of its funding from fines, so they have an incentive! I think you can find most of the required information on OSHA's site on the web. Your state department of labor should be able to help you; I don't know if they would use their link to OSHA to "put you on the screen" or not. I know I'm glad I did the voluntary before the surprise inspection.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
OSHA consultation is a mixed bag. If the state has a consultation arm, they can be helpful. But it is correct that any issues they see can and will turn into citations if not corrected. This can lead to costly upgrades or changes. You just need to be prepared for that situation. If you feeling like your safety program is as rare as the customer who wants custom woodwork on every inch of every wall in their house, and they pay cash, then you are better off spending a bit of money on a safety consultant to come in and assist you. The phone book is full of them, but many areas have associations (builders exchange, local chapter of the safety council, etc.) that you can utilize to find quality ones.

Many times your work comp carrier has a "safety consultant" at their disposal that they can send out. If you pay high enough rates and they want you as a customer or if you bundled services or other policies with them they will most likely pick up the tab. It does not hurt to ask. Unfortunately sometimes these insurance company consultants are not worth much and of course they have a fiduciary responsibility to the insurance company and may rat out any "issues" to the underwriters.

There are basics that any shop should have, and they are not hard to develop or implement. But it does take time and time is money.