About the only thing an agricultural industry manager would dread as much as seeing the late Mike Wallace and the crew of “60 Minutes” drive up to his facility would be to open the door to hear someone from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration say “we’re here for an inspection.”
It need not be that frightening, says Miriam McGee, outreach compliance assistance with South Texas OSHA.
McGee, speaking at the Coastal Bend Grain Storage and Handling Safety Conference recently in Sinton, Texas, explained that she is not in enforcement but works with businesses, typically small ones, to help them comply with regulations before they risk citations.
“We offer a consultation service free of charge,” she said, “usually for companies with fewer than 250 employees at a fixed site or no more than 500 nationally.”
She said prevention is much cheaper than the fines and other losses that could result from citations for hazardous working conditions. “Cost could go as high as seven to 10 times higher than the initial loss,” she said.
A safe workplace is important. In the United States, 16 people die in the workplace every day and 45 are injured every minute. Fatalities and workplace catastrophes require OSHA investigation. “Also, three or more hospitalizations require an investigation.” She said South Texas OSHA offices may investigate as many as 30 fatalities each year.
Employers have eight hours to report a catastrophe or a fatality. “Even a heart attack death must be reported,” she said. A site investigation may be necessary to determine if the death resulted from workplace hazards.
OSHA often receives referrals from other agencies and county sheriffs. “We also see media referrals,” media reports or photos showing unsafe workplace actions or conditions.
Know what to expect
Employers should know what to expect from a visit from OSHA. “The scope of the investigation may be comprehensive—wall to wall—or limited based on a fatality or a referral for a specific problem. “If we have a fatality referral we need to know who, where, what, when, and why.”
She advises employers to make certain the representative is authentic. “OSHA investigators will say who they are, why they are there and will show credentials. Make them show credentials.”
Some cases of persons falsely representing themselves as OSHA agents have been reported in the Corpus Christi, Texas, area.
An opening conference will cover the scope of the visit. Employee representatives or their union representatives may be present. A closing conference provides a list of hazards and actions to correct them.
“A compliance officer has six months to complete the file.”
McGee said employers may not discriminate against employees who report conditions they think may be hazardous.
An employer has 15 working days after receiving the list of citations—sent by certified mail—to request an informal conference. At that meeting employers may negotiate penalties. “They may ask for a reduced penalty, a citation reclassified to a lower level, grouping of citations (lumping several citations from one machine, for instance into just one citation and one penalty). Employers may also request the citation be dismissed.
“It is important that an employer know what he can ask for,” McGee said. “After those 15 days, the citation becomes the final order and moves through OSHA channels.”
She said employees should be aware of procedures to follow if someone from OSHA shows up. They also need to know to whom an OSHA document should be routed and how quickly it needs to be attended to.
Employers also are required to prepare an “abatement document” detailing proof that the recommendations have been taken care of and the hazards corrected.
McGee said the grain elevator industry should be aware of many areas of potential hazards. Failure to have an emergency action plan in place is one area that has been cited, she said. Others include entry into a grain bin without an observer, electrical circuit breakers not labeled properly, missing covers on junction boxes, use of improper equipment, stripped wiring, unguarded belts or pulleys and inadequate fire extinguisher maintenance and inspections.
New standards have been approved and will reflect a global standard. By Dec. 1, 2013, workers must be trained on new labels and data sheets from that new standard. By Jan. 2015, manufacturers, importers, distributors and employers must be in compliance, and by Jan. 2016, all employees must be trained.
Preparation is critical
Donald Grey, an inspector with the Occupational Safety and Health Consultants agency (OSHCON), says preparation is the key to avoiding OSHA penalties. OSHCON is a state agency, jointly funded by the State of Texas and OSHA.
“We help companies prepare for OSHA inspections,” he said. “We tell them what areas are in compliance and what areas need to be corrected, hopefully before OSHA gets there.”
As with the OSHA consultation service, OSHCON typically works with smaller companies.
“We have worked with grain facility inspections,” Grey said. Granaries are covered under OSHA regulation 29GFR 1910 with 1910.272 specific to grain. Many of the hazards he’s seen mirror the ones McGee mentioned but his list is longer.
Missing equipment guards on machinery is a common hazard, he said. “Also, fans must be guarded and openings can be no more than two inches. OSHA can cite that.” They can also cite broken or bent handles on shovels, brooms, rakes and other tools. Files or other tools without handles are also unacceptable. Ladders with damaged rungs, broken steps, or lacking slip-proof treads may be cited as can damaged supports—bent, loose or cracked. Ladders may be repaired, he said, “but not in the field. They must be taken back to the shop and restored to manufacturer’s quality.”
He said exit lights that are not working or failure to post an exit sign are hazards. Blocked exits or exit signs on overhead doors are also not allowed.
Grey said electrical problems are often identified in grain handling and storage facilities. Something as simple as a bent ground plug can be cited. A missing ground pin or a pin broken off in an outlet may be hazards.
Using an adaptor to cause equipment to be ungrounded is not allowed. Ungrounded equipment may be cited.
Grey says a $10 to $15 electrical testing kit “is a good investment and is easy to use. I recommend getting one to test for open ground. And then get a qualified electrician to make repairs.”
He said hand tools—drills, etc.—without ground are hazards. Other electrical hazards include frayed wires; no or insufficient insulation on wires; wires not spliced correctly; loose insulation, outlets, cords or equipment placed in wet areas; use of cords not suitable for a specific use or location; flexible cords run through windows or doors or used as permanent wiring; spliced extension cords; and uninspected cords and plugs.
Circuit breaker panels without doors, or without adequate working room—at least 30 inches in front—are cited hazards. “Jewelry worn during electrical work also may be cited,” Grey says.
“A lot of this stuff is just common sense. People don’t like to mess with electricity. It can be scary.” That’s why using that common sense is vital, he said.
A few bonehead actions also occur with welding equipment. Grey said oxygen and acetylene tanks should be stored a minimum of 25 feet from each other “unless they are behind a wall with at least 30 minutes of fire protection. Compressed gas cylinders must be secure. We also see damaged hoses on cylinders and the wrong clamps on cylinders. Also, if an adjacent person is not protected during welding activity (not wearing eye protection, for instance) the company may be cited.”
He said training is a key to many safety requirements. “No training on electrical safety,” he said, can be cited by OSHA.
Things as simple as failing to maintain a restroom properly may be considered safety hazards. Grey said citations may be made for having no paper towels or other means to dry hands in a restroom. Having no toilet paper, soap or hot or tepid water is also an offense.
“The paperwork can be the killer,” Grey said. Repairs and corrections must be documented. “If they are not documented, they never happened,” he said. OSHA must see annual inspection documents, training procedures, emergency protocols and evidence that hazards have been corrected.
“At OSHCON, we focus on high hazard industries,” Grey said. Criteria mirrors that of OSHA consultation—250 employees of fewer—and voluntary employer participation. “We have just 20 days to get initial reports and paperwork done,” he said.
Although 90 percent of OSHCON’s funding comes from OSHA, they do not report voluntary inspection findings to OSHA for enforcement.