My Audit of OSHA
OSHA Has No Sense of Humor
January 25, 2008
Ever since OSHA came to Marathon Seat Covers to look into a list of eight complaints*, I've wanted to inspect OSHA. Could they take the same scrutiny? Do they follow all the safety regulations. Do they carry out the required training? Do they keep their files of safety meetings perfectly?
A brief history of what happened in 2006 is in order. I'm sitting at the athletic club in my Toyota after my workout. Julie calls from the shop.
“An OSHA representative is here and she would like to know when you plan to return.”
“Tell her to make herself comfortable and I will return in a little while,” I said in a disdainful tone that Julie couldn't miss. She chuckled and said she would tell the lady.
When I walked in, the woman introduced herself, showed her badge, explained how the inspection would proceed and asked if I had any questions. I decided not to grovel.
“How long have you worked for OSHA?” I asked. “What is your training? Does this have to occur now- can't you schedule an appointment? What are the possible fines and penalties that could result? How often do your inspections result in fines and penalties?”
She had tried to seem un-threatening by wearing businesslike, but casual clothing. I tried to cow her with my litany. She seemed subdued, chagrined and surprised. I was having a good time, though I knew I would not win.
She did her walk-around, requiring me to accompany. She dismissed six of the eight complaints immediately. She would have to return with a noise meter and a formaldehyde meter at a later date, driving the round trip from Billings to Bozeman each time.
The day she made her second visit, she heeled me, waiting across the street in her car until she saw me pull up to the shop, then followed me in, trapping me. It felt a little like East Germany in the 1950's.
Both measurements turned up negative. No violation. But, our safety training and paper documents in filing cabinets were inadequate. She left. The Billings office mailed the fine: $2,000 reduced to $500. I called the Area Director in Billings.
I asked, “Why $2,000? Why not $10,000? Why reduce it to $500? What's the logic here? Is it totally arbitrary, set at your discretion?”
He said, “That's what we've been charging others.”
I said, “Sounds pretty arbitrary to me. I suppose you could nail just about any one of Montana's 35,000 small businesses with this fine, right?”
“Yes, that's probably true.”
My big sigh over the phone lines oozed incredulity.
He asked, “Do you have a company truck?”
“That's a good thing because most people with a company vehicle fail to train employees how to safely re-fuel. And that's a violation we can fine them for.”
I said, “You've got to be kidding. At a retail gas station, a corner convenience store? Any sixteen year-old in America knows how to put gas in a car. You're saying a company has to train how to do that, and keep records of the training?”
“Yes, that's right.”
I thought, “You are proud to admit it? What gall!” I also thought, “You charge $500 because you have found that is an amount businesses will pay without going to the expense of hiring a lawyer and appealing to a higher level. It gives you coup to show your chiefs in D.C. Though it cannot be defended, it is perfectly logical considering the incentives in your perverse, bureaucratic, Orwellian world.” I paid the stupid fine.
Then I made my employees suffer through inane meetings, made them sign forms certifying that they were notified of the time and place of the training meeting and then a form that they had attended the training meeting. Printed name, signed name. Inane.
So I made my unannounced visit to the Area Office of OSHA in Billings today, to corner the director, to see how he would respond to the secret police, pin-them-in-their-business treatment they had used on me. He had no stomach for it.
The office building where OSHA is located houses a number of other agencies such as BIA, SSA, and Railroad Retirement. You walk in and are handled by two security guards.
“Good day. Who are you here to visit? Put your keys, cell phone, anything metal in this tray and walk through the metal detector.” Then on to officer #2 where you show your driver's license. He writes name, address, phone and license number on a spreadsheet. Exciting job. Are they afraid of terrorists or citizens?
I went to the 3rd floor, walked into the anteroom and pressed the intercom button. A secretary opened the door. I said I wanted to perform a citizen audit, a safety inspection. It weirded her out. The door closed; I waited. The director came out and sat down with me in the miniature anteroom.
He asked, “What would you like?”
I said, “I'm here to do a safety inspection, like your agency did of my business two years ago.”
He said, “What's the name of your business?”
I felt safe; they could not heckle me now. “I sold it. I'm retired. I'd just like to ask you these five questions** I jotted down on the way here, and to inspect your safety training meeting files, and inspect the premises for safety hazards.”
His breath got tight. His brow puckered.
“Who are you?”
“I'm running for state legislature. I'm retired. I occasionally write a magazine article, kind of a free-lancer. Can I ask you these questions?”
He said, “We have our own safety inspections, and the fire department comes around to make sure the fire alarms are working.”
“So OSHA inspects OSHA. Internal audits are not real audits,” I said.
“I'm not willing to answer your questions,” he said.
I said, “I can't ask you the same questions you asked me two years ago?”
His blood vessels swelled. He flushed.
“Look, you're taking notes. I don't even know who you're representing. You'll have to leave. I'm going to go back inside the office and you need to remove yourself.” He was angry, emphasizing “back”, “office” and drawing out the syllables of the word “remove”. “If you don't, I will have to call security.”
He stood, punched the buttons on his security lock, and retreated into his offices. I straightened my books and left.
He couldn't take it. Now maybe he knows how it feels. It was a tiny scalp, but I really enjoyed the raid. The encounter fulfilled my expectation fully. Now all I have to do is to write up the fine, mitigate is some because it was a first violation, mail it and wait for my money.
*An electrical circuit keep blowing, occasionally overloaded. The auditor said that's not big deal; that's why you have circuit breakers. Our cutting table vacuum was noisy, perhaps too noisy. Test: Half the legal limit. Rolls of fabric came with a label that said there might be formaldehyde residues on them. The tag was overkill. The rolls were processed in a plant that sometimes uses formaldehyde. So it was a whiff of a potential problem that might exist on a rare occasion. In some tort lawyer's fertile imagination. Sometimes. Never. Test: Zero. The five other complaints were dismissed by the auditor as being baseless, almost ridiculous.
**What are you doing to correct for the dangers of a sedentary work style?
Has the building been tested for vapors of toxic releases of building materials? Radon?
I'd like to see your records for incidence of death, computer monitor induced eye fatigue, and carpal tunnel syndrome.
I'd like to see records of your safety training meetings.
I'd like to see evidence of training employees how to safely fill up at gas stations.
What is your biggest health and safety problem?
Can I see records of fines levied against you in the past five years?
(That's seven questions. I improperly told him I planned on asking five.)
Last Updated: 3-15-2008 11:51 AM