How Metals Industry Can Prepare for Major OSHA Crackdown

Fines double for violations, but proactive safety steps can prevent future citations.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is cracking down on hazards in the so-called primary metals industries. This means makers of nails, pipes, insulated wires and cables -- just about anyone involved in extracting and refining the likes of iron, lead, nickel or tin -- can count on facing at least three OSHA inspections per year.

This extraordinary level of scrutiny comes in the wake of what OSHA has described as serious and frequent safety problems in the sector, where the list of hazards includes metal dusts and fumes, carbon monoxide, toxins like lead or silica and high levels of noise and heat.

OSHAs National Emphasis Program for the primary metals industries will be a big change for employers. Simply put, it means they will be seeing a lot of OSHA. Even if the first inspection goes off without a hitch, employers can count on at least two follow-ups each year. And we are not talking about slaps on the wrist here: The Obama administrations OSHA offices have been steadily ramping up penalties.

Indeed, the typical fine is now approximately double what it might have been in 2007. Employers that brazenly fail to prepare for these inspections will likely face substantial penalties. Even relatively safe shops that make a few compliance slipups could be hit with a $50,000 fine.

How should employers prepare?

The first step is to become fully acquainted with OSHAs plans. At osha.gov, employers will find a number of tips and services geared toward helping them get ready. The next step is to do a self-assessment. Clearly, OSHA will look at whether employees are wearing respirators where required and whether those and other personal protective equipment meet the appropriate specifications. Is the respirator in question effective at reducing the specific chemicals in the air at the plant?

If the regulations for a particular activity or chemical call for protection of the hands and extremities, are employees actually wearing the right gear in the right way? Is the level of toxin exposure over the permissible exposure limit? Are the appropriate exhaust systems and fans in place?

Workers sometimes chafe at wearing respirators or other protective devices. The seriousness of this mistake should be impressed upon them: In other words, wear the stuff or get another job. But employers must also endure their share of discomfort. As noted by OSHA, for example, many plants fail to carry out air-testing as required because they regard it as a hassle. In the current regulatory environment, this is not recommended. OSHAs compliance officers will undoubtedly be looking closely at air quality during at least three on-site inspections. This could involve steps such as attaching air-samplers to employees mouths for the entirety of an eight-hour shift. Employers are well advised to get the air cleaned up before OSHA arrives.

In addition, inspectors will likely be scrutinizing all of the chemicals at the facility. They will be most interested in whether the required material safety data sheet is in place for each. These forms are designed to warn workers and emergency personnel about chemicals safety risks. But they are not just required for chemicals marked with skulls and crossbones. Even seemingly innocuous materials often must be accompanied by an MSDS. Look carefully at the standards to make sure your facility is in full compliance and that its overall hazard communication plan is up to date.

Often, the most efficient way to tackle these challenges is to bring in a good safety-and-health consultant, ideally a former OSHA inspector with years of experience. In four or five hours, a qualified consultant can tell you exactly what you need to do to get ready for an inspection. For example, if an employer is concerned about OSHA conducting air or noise tests, the private consultant could conduct such tests in advance, help the company correct any problems and then do a second set of tests. This latter data would be produced for OSHA. Ideally, inspectors will walk away without conducting any tests themselves.

Consultants can also serve as designated OSHA representatives. Many employers forget that when OSHA shows up at the door, the company does not have to let the inspectors in right away. In fact, they can say, We have a designated OSHA representative and would like him to accompany you. Typically, OSHA will wait up to 24 hours for the consultant to arrive. This can buy some valuable time.

For the primary metals industries, the regulatory environment clearly has grown well, hazardous. The safest approach is to spend the time and money needed to run a clean and compliant operation. Inspectors, after all, may already be headed to your facility.

Veteran occupational safety and health defense attorney Joseph P. Paranac, Jr. is a shareholder in LeClairRyan, based in the national law firms Newark, N.J office.

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