Why OSHA Consultation Makes More Sense than Ever
You’re thinking about hiring a safety and health consultant to help reduce injuries, conduct air sampling, or maybe assess your process safety efforts. What if you could get a highly qualified specialist to perform these or other tasks at no cost? If you represent a small business with high hazards, that’s exactly what you can expect.
This Compliance Report focuses on the OSHA 21D Consultation Program. Funded by federal OSHA but administered by the states, consultation is considered by many to be the agency’s most valuable offering. We learn how and why it works from the leaders of two state programs. And we find out the difference it’s made for business owners who opened their doors to OSHA consultants and never looked back.
On-site consultation was established as part of the OSH Act, which makes it nearly 40 years old. It is a confidential service primarily for small businesses with fewer than 500 employees and high hazards. Consultation is voluntary, which means that employers must request it. Some states have long waiting lists for service, while others do not and can respond quite quickly.
A key feature of the program is that it is separate from enforcement; no citations are issued or penalties proposed. Consultants report hazard information to OSHA only if the employer fails to correct an imminent danger or serious hazard. According to OSHA, the employer’s only obligation is to commit to correcting serious job safety and health hazards.
Among things consultants can be expected to do:
- Meet with the employer and, in some cases, with employees or employee representatives.
- Walk through the worksite with the employer and employees.
- Review injury and illness rates.
- Help identify workplace hazards.
- Identify types of available assistance.
- Give detailed findings in a closing conference.
- Assist the development or maintenance of an effective safety and health program.
- Provide training and education to the employer and employees.
Among things the consultants will not do:
- Issue citations or proposed penalties for violations.
- Report possible violations to OSHA enforcement staff.
- Guarantee that the workplace will “pass” an OSHA inspection.
Following a visit, the consultant sends the employer a written report explaining the findings and confirming any agreed-upon abatement schedules. Consultants may contact employers from time to time to check progress; employers may also contact them for additional assistance.
Some consultants will recommend an employer for participation in the Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP). It is a voluntary program that offers incentives and support to employers to develop, implement, and improve safety and health programs. Employers that meet the requirements may be exempted from OSHA programmed inspections for a 1-year period.
PEACH STATE APPROACH
The state of Georgia’s sought-after Consultation Program resides at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). In a typical year, the program assists more than 360 small businesses, identifies 2,500 conditions that could cause physical harm, trains about 1,400 people, and saves companies more than $2.5 million in potential fines, a payback of 2.5 times the amount invested in the program.
In coordination with federal OSHA’s 5-year strategic plan, Georgia Consultation is currently focusing on construction; food processing; nursing homes; logging; and prevention of the lung disease, silicosis. Like most consultation programs, Georgia Tech specializes in certain types of assistance based on expertise. Focus areas include ergonomics and health care.
Georgia Consultation, now in its 32nd year, is managed by program veteran Dan Ortiz, an ergonomics expert who also serves as division chief of the university’s Human Systems Integration Division. Ortiz notes with pride that Georgia was one of four OSHA education center test sites in the early 1990s. That successful pilot led to the establishment of 30 education centers around the country.
The highly experienced consultation staff includes industrial hygienists, certified safety professionals, and safety engineers. Consultants do more than identify hazards. “They’re trained to look at safety and health management systems,” says Ortiz. “We feel strongly about leaving companies with a system that’s based on continuous improvement, follows good principles, and has a mechanism in place to identify and control new hazards.”
Focused on Success
The program has leveraged its capacity by entering into a number of partnerships, including one with the Georgia Health Care Association focusing on patient handling. Another alliance with the large construction contractor Brasfield & Gorrie helped reduce a recordable injury rate from 7.5 to 2, with no fatalities over the 17 months of the agreement.
Despite decades of success, Ortiz says the program “still has a lot of people to reach out to.” Many employers, especially those that are unable to afford a full-time safety specialist, remain unaware of the service. While Ortiz believes his program needs to do more to communicate and market its services, it continues to maintain a sizable backlog of requests.
Many employers that use consultation return for additional assistance. And many, including those that have not been formally served, call or e-mail the consultants for answers to specific questions. “Off-site technical assistance can often be the best way to solve a problem—you just call or e-mail with a question,” says Ortiz. “Every day we get lots of these and we help out quite a bit.”
PENNSYLVANIA: ‘AN ENORMOUS FOLLOWING’
The Pennsylvania OSHA Consultation Program has been in place since 1983. Headquartered at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, it is directed by Sam Gualardo. “One of the high points of our program is that we have an enormous following of clientele who have repeatedly used our services year after year—a testament to the kind of service we provide,” says Gualardo. Like Georgia’s, the Pennsylvania program has a waiting list for service.
Clients include nursing homes, steel mills, shipbuilders, food manufacturers, and “everything in between.” Gualardo says most clients are interested in moving beyond compliance to improve worker protection.
One of the factors contributing to the program’s success is its 11 consultants, many having experience in private industry. Gualardo says 95 percent are certified safety professionals or certified industrial hygienists. Turnover is extremely low, with some consultants approaching 30 years of service.
Asked if clients approach consultation differently because the service is provided at no cost, Gualardo answers: “The service is perceived as free, but realistically they are paying through their corporate and federal taxes. But that doesn’t really change the equation from our perspective.” In fact, OSHA consultants can have a much greater impact on their clients. That’s because, unlike private consultants, the OSHA specialists can require that workplaces make recommended abatements.
“We don’t tell them to do more than the law requires, but when clients engage us, they have an obligation to meet their duties to their employees under the OSH Act.” Gualardo, like program leaders in other states, reiterates that turning a consultation client over to enforcement is rare.
Pennsylvania operates an active phone service. Consultants are assigned phone duty on a rotating basis; they take calls from clients and other employers. Pennsylvania consultants, like those in many other states, also provide on-site training for groups of employees.
Gualardo seeks to clarify a perception among some that OSHA consultants take business away from their private counterparts. Not true, he argues. “The small businesses we consult with typically do not have the resources to seek out consulting. What’s more, we are very much limited in what we can do—we can only consult according to what’s in the OSH Act,” where a private consultant is not limited in the scope of an assignment.
Case in Point
Among Pennsylvania Consultation successes is Keystone Wood Specialties Inc., a manufacturer of cabinet doors and other wood components for the kitchen and bath industries.
The small (54 employees) business is located in Lancaster. Safety Compliance Coordinator Dave Landis was hired in 1999 and promptly set out to build awareness and commitment.
One of the first steps he took was to help the company achieve certification for its safety committee. That designation earns Pennsylvania businesses a 5 percent reduction in their workers’ compensation premiums.
Keystone had sought out consultation assistance before Landis arrived, but he took it to another level and set a goal of achieving SHARP, which happened in 2003. As part of that process, Landis led an effort to review and improve every component of the safety program.
The process was overseen by the OSHA consultant and included plenty of input from employees. The improved programs were codified and placed into a binder that was easily accessible to employees as well as supervisors.
Worker protection is an unquestioned priority at Keystone, and the commitment starts at the top. Company President Sam Stolzfus is known for his dedication to good housekeeping. And he takes every opportunity to remind employees that “No phase of the operation is considered of greater importance than accident prevention.”
Every day, after lunch, Stolzfus makes the rounds of the shop floor, talking to employees and watching how they work. As well, he is personally involved in quarterly inspections.
The results are compiled and reviewed at the next safety meeting, as are any hazards or near misses. The internal inspection team also includes Landis, a member of the Safety Committee, and a maintenance expert who corrects hazards on the spot, if possible.
Another valuable tool is a computer program that identifies equipment due for maintenance. The program is set to a desired repair/review frequency and kicks out a daily report indicating when certain machines should be greased, checked, etc.
Achieving SHARP status was an important benchmark, but it didn’t signal the end of Keystone Wood Specialties’ relationship with Pennsylvania Consultation. The company faces SHARP recertification every 2 years. Landis continues to seek help from Consultation with air quality testing, noise level surveys, and assessment of new equipment for potential hazards.
These are potentially costly services that Landis appreciates getting for free. He also appreciates the notable reduction in risk that’s come as a result of the recommendations made by his consultant. Today, he counts on regular visits from Consultation, along with findings from plant inspections and reports from employees to find and fix persistent hazards.
Landis, who has been invited to Washington to speak about his experiences, “can’t say enough about the program.” Rumors that SHARP might be revamped to eliminate the inspection exemption concern him. “You may have a lot of SHARP sites drop out of the program,” he says. “The inspection exemption makes them feel that they’ve achieved a lot.”
Dan Cain is another big believer in consultation. He’s president of George D. Alan (GDA), a waterproofing subcontractor located in Dallas, Texas. The business, which has about 100 employees in the field and 20 in the office, first used OSHA consultation in 2002. The company was introduced to the program through the Sealant Waterproofing and Restoration (SWR) Institute, which had joined an alliance with OSHA.
Among benefits of consultation, Cain offers: “We’re certainly not afraid of OSHA anymore. We have no fear at all.” In fact, during a consultant’s second visit to the facility, Cain challenged him to find even more hazards than initially identified. “I told them that they needed to really earn their money by finding more!”
Importantly, the consultant helped Cain see that some equipment and practices being considered were not compliant and should not be implemented. According to Cain, many employers in the industry persist in using noncompliant practices, such as using ladders as work surfaces. Heightened awareness as a result of consultation has helped GDA turn away from these practices in favor of proven, legal ones.
Confident in the benefits of consultation for his company, Cain suggested bringing OSHA consultants onto jobsites. He was initially met with stiff resistance. “Most customers basically said ‘there’s no way in hell you’re bringing OSHA in.’”
But Cain assured them, in part by explaining the separation between state-run consultation and federally enforced compliance.
“Using OSHA’s cooperative and assistance progams to create a culture of safety has been essential to GDA,” says Cain. “Embracing sound safety practices and sharing those safety practices with companies has been empowering,” he adds.
At the time of the company’s first consultation visit, its days away from work, restricted, and transfer (DART) and total recordable case (TRC) rates were both 19.2.
In 2010, the employer boasted a DART rate of 4.18 and a TRC of 5.57. Employees had worked more than 200,000 hours without a lost-time injury.
Is Consultation in Your Future?
If your business is small and the work is hazardous, you may wish to consider on-site consultation for risk identification, testing, training, and other types of assistance.
You can learn more at the OSHA website, http://www.osha.gov/dcsp/smallbusiness/consult.html. The right side of the screen offers an interactive map to help locate the nearest consultation program.
In an era of tight safety and health budgets, getting quality consulting assistance without an invoice has been a high-value strategy for many employers.
Maybe it’s time to make the call.