Free consultations help to protect workers and meet OSHA regulations.
As the manager for the OSHA On-Site Consultation Program in Wisconsin, Mike Cavanagh knows it sounds too good to be true. But he offers assurance that employers really can get free and confidential help to provide a safe workplace and comply with OSHA regulations without fear of getting a citation.
Consultants from state agencies or universities provide the help to identify workplace hazards, give advice on OSHA compliance, and assist with injury and illness prevention programs. The consultants are not OSHA employees and, with few exceptions, are not allowed to communicate with OSHA about their findings.
“There is a wall between us,” explains Cavanagh, an employee of the University of Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene. “Our consultants and the OSHA inspectors are not allowed to compare notes or have conversations about clients. Our results are only provided to the company and to the union, if there is one.”
If a consultant would find a serious hazard, however, the company would be responsible to make corrections within a certain time. “We try our best to be flexible,” says Cavanagh. “We typically assign a 60-day correction and will work with companies if it’s going to take longer.” If the company still fails to fix a serious hazard despite the assistance, it would be reported to OSHA, though that is rare.
The service is targeted at small- and medium-sized businesses, making about 30,000 visits a year nationwide. In 2014, 55 percent of the companies employed between one and 25 workers with just 2 percent having more than 250 employees.
Employer determines extent of assistance
Wisconsin’s consultants include four safety experts and five industrial hygienists, one of whom is an engineer. Who gets assigned to a company depends upon the type of assistance requested. “The company determines the scope of the visit,” says Cavanagh. That may entail looking at one issue such as noise, one department, or the entire company. “The employer is in the driver’s seat.”
Once work begins, a company may decide to expand the focus or could cut back. Cavanagh says one example would be if several violations were found. The company or the consultant may decide that it would be best to correct those before continuing. Consultants also point out obvious hazards that are outside the scope of the inspection, such as a missing safety guard, so the company can take immediate action to protect workers.
One firm that has used the service in Wisconsin several times wrote of one consultant, “She is great to work with, as she not only points out hazards/issues that she finds, but also takes time to explain.”
Another admitted that there was “trepidation” about inviting an inspection but learned that it had risks the company was not aware of. “A lot of companies feel that anything having to do with OSHA is bad because they are seen as the enemy.” The firm used three of the program’s consultants who, they say, “put our concerns at ease and were very informative and helpful.”
The consultants can:
- Help recognize hazards in the workplace
- Suggest general approaches or options for solving a safety or health problem
- Identify the kinds of help available if further assistance is needed
- Provide a written report summarizing findings
- Assist in developing or maintaining an effective injury and illness prevention program
- Provide training and education for the company and its employees
Every state has an On-Site Consultation Program with contacts listed online at osha.gov/dcsp/smallbusiness/consult.html. Most deal only with private employers, not municipal or state government entities. Visits generally begin within a few weeks of the request, depending on workload and the nature of the issue. Visits are prioritized for things such as an imminent threat, reports of workers getting ill, and the size and risk potential of the business, with smaller businesses getting preference.
A company may also be referred to the program by OSHA. That could happen if the agency receives a nonformal complaint such as one that is unsigned or from a worker who has been fired.
Companies may also be referred after being cited. “OSHA might be willing to reduce the penalty if a company agrees to have a consultant come in and verify that everything is corrected,” says Cavanagh. “They don’t say you have to come to us, but they usually let the employer know about our program and that it’s free of charge.”