Failing to comply with Occupational Safety & Health Administration regulations can land a small business owner in hot water and lead to an inspection of workplace safety practices.

But if an event happens at work that triggers a visit from an OSHA compliance officer,  a small business can save a lot of time and money, and even minimize liability by being fully prepared.

Tressi Cordaro, attorney at Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart in Washington, D.C., said small businesses tend to overlook taking the proper precautions to prepare for an inspection.  

"There are benefits to prepping ahead of time, and knowing how to handle OSHA when they do come in," she said.

Many large businesses fall into this same category, she continued, and don't realize how important it is to protect your business during such an investigation and potential citation.

"The goal is that by prepping in advance, the employer can assert some measure of control over the inspection process and may be able to reduce OSHA and other liabilities," she said.

Here are some of the steps Cordaro said business owners should take when facing an OSHA inspection:

Before the inspection:

Business owners should assess the workplace and prepare a plan before the inspection. The plan should address what hazards currently exist in the workplace and what personal protective requirements are in place.

"Do you need respirators, eye glasses, gloves or hardhats? What other hazards might your workers be exposed to?"

She also advised owners read through the credentials of the Compliance Safety and Health Officer (CSHO) and learn the purpose of the inspection. If applicable, higher management or company counsel should be informed of the inspection.

Once the workplace is assessed, make sure your employees are well versed in the potential risks posed to their health and the precautions the company has taken to protect them.

According to Cordaro, small business owners can either consent to the inspection or request that the compliance officer seek a warrant. However she warned it’s usually not in a business’s best interest to ask to have OSHA seek it. “OSHA may be there only to inspect one aspect of the workplace, and if you ask for an official warrant, you are essentially opening up the rest of the workplace for investigation.”

Also, assign one person to be in charge of the inspection at your workplace, she said.

"Have a key contact to deal with them beforehand, to control the flow of information.”

During the inspection:

The assigned person from the company should shadow the OSHA compliance officer at all times, advised Cordaro, and he or she should take the same photos and measurements as the officer. The officer will be allowed to ask employees questions as part of the investigation, however if it is disruptive to the normal work process, the business representative can step in, she said.

"During these interviews, (management) employees are allowed to have an attorney or other management official present."

Also know your own rights, Cordaro said. Employers are not required to provide documents to OSHA, such as training documentation, safety programs, unless those documents are subpoenaed.  The exception is an employer's injury and illness record keeping documents.  However, its best if employers cooperate with OSHA and simply ask OSHA to put a request for documents in writing, so that there is  no confusion about what documents were sought or provided during the investigation, she said.

After the inspection:

Cordaro advised companies limit what information they give to the inspector to only materials that are requested. They should ask specifically why an apparent violation exists, and should not agree or admit to anything about hazardous conditions.

With that said, it’s not a good idea to argue with the officer. After the inspection, there will be a closing conference with a compliance manager who will review what they saw. After the conference ends, OSHA has six months to issue citations, Cordaro said.

"Once you get the citation, you have 15 working days to contest the citation," she said.

The National Federation of Independent Business recently held a Webinar called "What Every Small Business Owner Needs to Know and Do Before, During and After an OSHA Inspection." For more information about this topic, click here.

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