Who's there? What to do when OSHA comes knocking

If OSHA comes calling, realize, first of all, that you're in a very select group. Last year, state and federal OSHA inspectors conducted over 90,000 inspections out of 6.5-million companies subject to its rules. (Twenty-three states handle their own OSHA inspections, which meet or exceed federal standards for workplace safety.) Taking into account that some work sites are inspected more than once,

If OSHA comes calling, realize, first of all, that you're in a very select group. Last year, state and federal OSHA inspectors conducted over 90,000 inspections out of 6.5-million companies subject to its rules. (Twenty-three states handle their own OSHA inspections, which meet or exceed federal standards for workplace safety.) Taking into account that some work sites are inspected more than once, your chances of being visited by OSHA are extremely slim. On the flip side, trucking and warehousing has been identified as a hazardous industry, which may bring it more regularly into the agency's sights.

On the other hand, if OSHA receives a complaint about an unsafe condition, or if you've had a serious injury or fatality at your work site, your chances of receiving an OSHA visit are enhanced. About 60% of OSHA inspections are random or "unprogrammed," in OSHA parlance. About 40% are programmed, and of those, 30% are triggered by a complaint, according to OSHA's spokesperson Michael Fluharty.

What's the number one safety issue? Hazardous communications. This includes training, safety equipment, and posting hazardous materials and conditions information. If companies were to focus on this aspect alone, safety lawyers say, it could go a long way to keeping OSHA off their doorsteps.

Safety experts often differ on the best course of action to take when visited by an OSHA inspector. The first decision to make is whether or not to allow the inspector access to your property. Some lawyers advise their clients never to allow OSHA in unless they have a warrant. Others say that's simply asking for trouble. "We tell clients not to ask for a warrant. We tell our clients to show their nice side," says Lawrence Postol, partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Seyfarth, Shaw, Fairweather & Geraldson. His experience is that most OSHA inspectors are honest and straightforward, and that asking for a warrant will only serve to annoy them. If OSHA inspectors are forced to get a warrant, they rarely fail to do so.

Indeed, according to OSHA estimates, only about 1% of companies deny OSHA access without a warrant. Although inspectors are not supposed to be negatively influenced by a company's refusal to allow a search without a warrant, it certainly raises the question: "What is the company trying to hide?"

OSHA experts say that once an inspector enters your workplace, you should take the following course of action:

* Immediately refer the inspector to your safety officer.

* The safety officer should check the inspector's credentials.

* Ask the inspector to tell you why he is inspecting your workplace. A complaint? A random visit?

* Have a conference with the inspector to determine what he wants to see and why. Does he want to inspect the premises or simply study your records?

* If the inspection is the result of a complaint, the inspector will not tell you the person's name. However, you are entitled to know whether the person is a current employee.

* Notify your OSHA counsel of the visit.

* "The most important thing is to show the inspector that you have safety programs in place," says Postol. He and other OSHA lawyers say that sometimes that's all an inspector is interested in. He may not even go to the work floor if the paperwork is complete and up to date.

* If the inspector wants to walk around, your safety officer should accompany him and take notes. If the inspector takes a photo, so should the safety officer.

* It's okay to fix something that an inspector calls to your attention. For example, if the inspector points to a frayed electrical wire, it's permissible to order a worker to immediately replace it.

* Be helpful and cooperate but don't offer the inspector any information that he doesn't request. "Don't admit anything," advises Postol. He also says that you can terminate the inspection at any time. If you ask the inspector to leave, he must do so. Keep in mind that he may return with a warrant, however.

* Ask the inspector for duplicates of any physical samples - water, soil, etc. - that he takes, as well as copies of any photos or videos he takes.

* If the inspector asks to talk to an employee, you should make that person available. However, you have the right to prepare employees first.

When the inspection is over:

* Request a receipt listing all the documents you gave the inspector.

* Make sure you know what additional material the inspector wants.

* Note any problems the inspector pinpointed, along with suggestions on abatement.

* Make sure the inspector knows the safety officer's name, title, address, and phone number so he can receive any correspondence from OSHA.

* Keep your counsel apprised of everything you gave the inspector.

Wherever possible, make changes based on the inspection shortfalls. If a citation is issued, post it in the work site areas reserved for employee communications. Your counsel will advise you whether or not you should contest it.

More antilock New antilock braking regulations went into effect March 1 for all hydraulically braked commercial vehicles, almost exclusively the domain of medium-duty trucks. This requirement completes the picture. Now every new commercial vehicle with a GVW of more than 10,000 lb. must have ABS. Although end users likely will notice few, if any, performance changes, they will probably see retail prices reflect the $1,500 ABS price tag. To date, most purchasers have opted to delete ABS from their spec sheet.

First step OSHA has released a draft of the regulatory text that is likely to serve as the basis for an ergonomics standard in the year 2000. The proposal must be reviewed for its impact on small businesses before it can be published in the Federal Register for public comment. The current draft, which focuses on employers in manufacturing and manual handling operations, is available on OSHA 's Web site at www.osha.gov.

No takers With the March 31 deadline only weeks away, no states have applied to FHWA's pilot program for allowing tolls on Interstate highways. Arkansas and South Carolina have indicated some interest, but have not made formal requests. The American Trucking Assns. opposes the tolls, since fleets are already subject to taxes on fuel and other fees.

Caught in the act Barry Sather and his company, Barry Sather Truck Service, Brooklyn Park, Minn., were sentenced in U.S. District Court for falsifying drivers' logs. Sather was sentenced to one year of probation with 180 days of home detention and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine. The company was sentenced to two years' probation and ordered to pay a $15,000 fine. Since January 1997, DOT investigations have resulted in 39 indictments, 32 convictions, and $1.6 million in fines.

OEM releases online driver and maintenance manuals

The Internet is changing the relationship between customers and dealers and between dealers and manufacturers. It holds huge opportunities for the trucking industry because it enables the delivery of information where, when, and in the manner it's needed," observed James L. Hebe, president and CEO of Freightliner Corp., at a press briefing last month at the company's headquarters.

Hebe's remarks introduced Freightliner's launch of online driver and maintenance manuals and set the stage for discussion of Freightliner's 1998 results and 1999 plans. By any measure, it was a productive year for the Portland, Ore.-based company, and the year ahead promises to keep up the pace, said Hebe.

"Last year was the best Freightliner ever had," he observed. "We achieved 30% market share for the first time (33.1% if you include Sterling), surpassed Navistar in Class 4 through Class 8 sales, and took over the leading position in North American Class 8 exports." Freightliner also capturedthe number-two position in Class 6 and Class 7 truck sales, pushing Mt. Holly's production up to 130 business class and cargo vans per day, according to Hebe, with overall production at 618 trucks per day, plus Thomas Built buses.

Hebe observed that the nation's booming economy, with its 40-year-low inflation rate, has been very good for the trucking industry. "After-tax income was up 4% last year," he said. "If you want to understand how that impacts trucking, just look at what trucks are hauling: cars and car parts, retail consumer goods, construction materials to support new housing and development, and food for the growing population.

"We don't expect it to taper off in 1999, either. If fact, 1999 may be even better for trucking, if we can get components," he added. "We're expecting a 2.9% growth in the economy overall, and a 2.5 to 3% growth in longhaul truck ton miles."

Freightliner's own order backlog at the end of 1998 accounted for 48% of the industry's total, according to Hebe. He noted that the company plans to build 176,000 total trucks in 1999, at the rate of 700 per day by the close of the year, not including Thomas Built bus production. "The sustainable annual market for Class 8 trucks in this economy is probably 200,000," Hebe added. "Class 6 and Class 7 business is growing, as is the private fleet sector."

Freightliner, Sterling, American LaFrance, and Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. vehicles will all get additional field support thanks to Freightliner's online driver and maintenance manuals, which were unveiled at the press briefing. Decentralized companies with multiple locations will find the manuals especially useful, noted Hebe.

"Companies can't hold customers captive with proprietary information anymore," he observed. "Truck owners are entitled to know everything there is to know about their trucks. With Internet access, an encyclopedia of Freightliner vehicle information is ready for them at the desktop."

According to Freightliner, the online manuals contain the entire text of the company's printed manuals, along with hundreds of drawings and schematics. There are even animation sequences to demonstrate various functions or processes.

The online manuals are available immediately at www.alliancesupport.com. Access is free and no password is required - just click on "Technical Information" under the "Information Systems" heading. Repair manuals will hit the Internet next, according to Hebe, with a planned launch date sometime during the fourth quarter.

Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Sumitomo Rubber Industries announced the formation of four joint venture operating companies. The units will be based in North America, Europe, and Japan. Two U.S.-based service joint ventures will also be formed, one for global purchasing and one for sharing tire technology.

Goodyear will own 75% of the North American and European operations, while Sumitomo (which has rights to the Dunlop brand) will own a 75% share in the two operating units based in Japan. Goodyear will pay Sumitomo $936 million.

According to Goodyear, the North American joint venture will include Sumitomo's tire operations in North America, with annual sales of $800 million. Although the new unit will have access to the distribution channels of Goodyear's North American tire group, the latter will operate outside of the new venture.

The alliance is expected to result in a 20% increase in consolidated annual sales for Goodyear.

The new units should be in operation by September of this year.

President Clinton's budget for fiscal-year 2000 contains over 100 tax proposals, carefully balanced between revenue raisers and narrowly drawn tax credits and other breaks. Republicans in Congress have countered with broad tax cuts and pronounced most of the increases to be nonstarters.

Despite the sparring, there are some areas of overlap, if not quite agreement. Both parties seem interested in making it easier for small firms to offer pensions and health insurance plans. In addition, self-employed individuals, such as owner-operators, may finally get a full write-off for their health insurance costs.

For trucking, the best news may be no news: There are no highway-related excise tax proposals in play at the moment.

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