Hospitals and other healthcare facilities have been on OSHA’s “high-risk” workplace list for a few years. That means the regulatory agency has noticed an increased number of employee injuries there, and therefore OSHA inspections have increased in hospitals and labs as well. If an OSHA inspector arrives at your facility, you should not panic, but you should know some very specific steps to follow.
If inspectors come directly to your department and you belong to a hospital or larger facility, be sure to contact your administration and accreditation departments immediately. This is a government agency on site, and the facility representatives need to be aware and involved. Verify the identity of the inspector(s). Sadly, there are imposters who pose as inspectors for the purpose of collecting money. OSHA inspectors will never talk about fine amounts during an inspection, and they certainly would not collect money on site. To prove the inspectors’ identity contact the state or federal OSHA office and verify that an inspector is scheduled to be on site. Twenty seven U.S. states and territories operate OSHA-approved State Plans, and if that is true in your area, it will be the state inspector on site rather than someone from the federal government.
OSHA is legally authorized to conduct workplace inspections to enforce health and safety standards, so it is usually best to allow them to inspect if requested. That said, you do have the right to require the inspector to obtain a search warrant before allowing them into your lab. However, as you can imagine, this will give an inspector the wrong idea about what you may or may not be hiding. They may dig deeper when they do return with that warrant, so it may not be the best course of action to turn them away.
An OSHA inspection begins with an opening conference which details the scope and purpose of the inspection. In the initial meeting, it is acceptable to ask the purpose of the inspection and its anticipated length. Ask what documents the inspector will want to see, and ask if there are any specific employees he or she will need to interview. If the inspection was triggered by an employee complaint, ask for a copy of the written report. The inspector may review certain lab documents pertinent to the investigation, and these may include the chemical hygiene plan, exposure control plan, or other policies and procedures.
While on site, the OSHA inspector should always be accompanied by a representative of your employer, an escort, and their next steps will usually be a walk-through of the inspected areas to look for safety hazards and to talk to employees. The inspector may talk to staff, take notes, and take pictures. The lab escort should take copious notes while this is happening, and it is advisable to take pictures of whatever the inspector documents with photographs.
If the inspector asks to interview an employee, he may do so in private so long as the employee agrees to that. Train staff to never volunteer information during an OSHA inspection; they should answer only what is asked. An OSHA inspector may ask if the employee familiar with lab safety policies and procedures, and whether or not the employee follows those procedures. They will try to determine if staff is aware of hazards in the workplace. If the inspector points out safety violations he notes, do not agree to them; it may be taken as an admission of wrong-doing and could incur a fine. If you are able to correct the violation on site, do so immediately, but understand that you could still be cited. However, this goes a long way toward showing the inspector that your interest truly is in cooperating and keeping employees safe.
Once the investigation is complete, the inspector will hold a closing session on site. During that time the lab will be notified about citations that will appear in the written report. The inspector will explain your right to appeal noted violations and give information on how and by when to appeal. They will answer any questions you may have. If on-site corrections were allowed during the inspection, be sure the inspector states that the follow up was completed.
If a citation will be incurred, start right away to prepare your response while the information is fresh in your mind. An OSHA report can take up to six months to be sent to the facility. Post OSHA citations at or near the site of the violation in the department. If the correction of the violation takes longer than three days, the posting must remain until the correction is completed. After correcting a hazard, notify OSHA in writing. Employers have up to 25 days to submit OSHA an abatement of the safety issue or issues. If the abatement will take a long time (greater than 90 days), the first abatement progress report is due to OSHA within 55 days.
OSHA fines increased in 2016 for the first time in over 30 years. A single fine amount can range from $12,500 up to $125,000 depending on the seriousness of the violation. That’s just one reason to make sure your lab is following OSHA safety regulations. Keep your staff safe, but if OSHA knocks on your door, remain calm, and follow the steps to ensure a smooth inspection and follow-up process.
–Dan Scungio, MT(ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ) has over 25 years experience as a certified medical technologist. Today he is the Laboratory Safety Officer for Sentara Healthcare, a system of seven hospitals and over 20 laboratories and draw sites in the Tidewater area of Virginia. He is also known as Dan the Lab Safety Man, a lab safety consultant, educator, and trainer.