Dec
13
2010
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administrations (OSHA) On-Site Consultation Program is a popular, mostly risk-free way for small businesses to obtain help identifying workplace hazards, advice on OSHA compliance, and assistance in establishing safety and health protocols. OSHA conducted more than 30,000 visits to small businesses under the program in the last fiscal year alone.

The program is voluntary, confidential and free, and is completely separate from OSHAs enforcement staff, so it does not result in penalties or citations.

Participants may also qualify for exemptions from OSHA inspections for several years after the consultation. In effect, businesses that have demonstrated a willingness to work with and comply with agency safety regulations are rewarded with the exemptions.

However, changes proposed by OSHA would limit the amount of time that a business is exempt following a consultation, and would also broaden OSHAs power to investigate businesses even if they qualified for the exemptions. Critics say that the changes could remove the incentives for small businesses to take part in the program, resulting in poorer all-around workplace health and safety awareness.

How it works

The way the program currently works is that a company (for example, a veterinary practice) calls OSHA to request a consultation visit. The OSHA consultant sets up a time to come and look over the practice to either review the total health and safety situation or to evaluate specific problem areas that the practice needs checked.

After the consultant has gone through the practice, he or she will go over the risks that were discovered and any actions the owner needs to take. The consultant will not issue citations or report possible violations to OSHA enforcement. However, the consultant might require immediate action if they find an "imminent danger." Also, if a "serious violation" is discovered, the practice would be required to come up with an action plan and a schedule to fix the problem.

After participating in the On-Site Consultation program, the practice also becomes eligible for the Safety & Heath Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP), which exempts the practice from programmed OSHA inspections for a year, and the opportunity to extend the exemption for three years. If the practice achieves certain safety and health goals it can gain SHARP status. Practices that undergo the On-Site Consultation program are considered Pre-SHARP if they are working toward SHARP goals with OSHA. Both SHARP and Pre-SHARP practices can still be investigated in the case of a formal complaint, fatality or imminent danger.

Changes proposed

Now, OSHA has proposed changes to the program that some small businesses are worried about. The main changes would be:

Exemption period

  • SHARP businesses would be exempt from programmed inspections for one year, with the option to extend the exemption for only one more year. Currently the exemption can be extended for up to three years.

Referrals

  • OSHA would be allowed to terminate on-site consultations, or to initiate enforcement against SHARP and pre-SHARP businesses following "referrals." These are described by OSHA as "allegations of potential workplace hazards or violations from state or local health departments, media, and other sources."

"Other critical inspections"

  • In addition to cases of formal complaints, workplace fatality, or imminent danger, OSHA would be allowed to conduct investigations at SHARP and pre-SHARP businesses for "other critical inspections as determined by the Assistant Secretary." According to OSHA, these inspections would be most likely be industry-wide inspections in response to workplace accidents that generate widespread concern about a particular substance or hazard.

The Small Business Administration (SBA) Office of Advocacy was critical of the proposal and submitted comments to the Federal Register in response to it. According to the SBA’s newsletter, the Small Business Advocate, the Office discussed OSHAs proposed rule with small business representatives and recommended that OSHA:

  • maintain the "wall of separation" between the On-Site Consultation program and its enforcement program
  • better explain why the proposed rule is needed
  • clarify the circumstances that would trigger inspections

"Advocacy is concerned that these provisions are overly broad and will inhibit small business participation in the program," the Office said in its comments.

The comment period ended Nov. 2, but users can still read others comments. To read all comments on the proposed changes, go to http://www.regulations.gov and enter the Docket No.: OSHA-2010-0010.

Comments (1) -

Guest
GuestUnited States
1/3/2011 2:18:00 PM #

It is important to keep in mind especially in these difficult economic times for states that the OSHA program is a money making program for them so they are looking for ways to increase finables. I am more and more disheartened when i am in DC talking to regulatory agencies advocating for our profession at how they are looking at OSHA as a way to make money not as it was originally designed which was to assist business owners in keeping workers safe. Sad but oh so true- started to see it in the state of MI over a year ago when they decreased the amount they would reduce fines on issues you corrected- used to decrease by 95% or drop fines  completely on items addressed and corrected- but now they will only consider a decrease of 10%- sad esp in these economic times. This new proposition to basically allow what used to be great free consulting service to become adversarial from the moment they step on your property is bad news for us as business owners as well as for employees.  Chery F.

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