OSHA Compliance

Kitty McConnell

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires employers to provide "working conditions that are free of known dangers." That can be challenging enough for ordinary businesses. For commercial construction companies, the basics of OSH Act compliance are further complicated by restrictions relating to the specific structures they are contracted to build or renovate.

The act covers items both obvious (protecting workers from falls) and not so (preventing exposure to infectious diseases). The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), part of the U.S. Department of Labor, is charged with overseeing compliance-and violations. According to OSHA statistics, 4,609 workers were killed on the job in 2011. Almost 18 percent of fatalities were in the construction industry. Still OSHA opines, the act is making a difference: Since 1970, workplace fatalities are down more than 65 percent, and injury and illness rates have declined by 67 percent.

Central Ohio contractors say companies that take the initiative to implement thorough injury prevention programs aligned with OSHA regulations are in the best position to avoid violations-and penalties.

"It is physically impossible for OSHA inspectors to be in every workplace every day of the year, so we leverage our resources by strategically targeting those employers and industries where workers are in the most danger of getting hurt, sick or killed by occupational hazards," says Scott Allen, the Midwest regional director for public affairs and media relations for the U.S. Department of Labor, in an email interview.

Complaints from construction employees can spur inspections, but on the flip side, OSHA's penalty policy, updated in October 2010, reduces penalties for small employers and those "acting in good faith," writes Allen. "Our revised penalty structure will consider various factors, including an employer's overall safety and health program, the number of workers, and previous inspection history."

"OSHA does have a strategy for inspection, obviously if there's a major incident, [if] somebody is killed or several people are hospitalized," says Dianne Grote Adams, president and founder of Safex, a 20-year-old Westerville-based consulting firm that offers training as well as on-site construction inspections related to OSHA compliance.

Employers should expect routine inspections, during which "You get lucky, your name comes up and OSHA comes out," says Grote Adams. There also are drive-by inspections, where OSHA representatives may stop to inspect a site if something looks unsafe, as well as inspections triggered by employee complaints. "Having a really safe workplace is your best protection," she says.

Grote Adams advises construction companies in particular to guard against violations in the three most-cited areas: fall protection, scaffolding and ladders. "Those three areas are also the highest penalty areas that OSHA has been citing," she says.

Companies can expect penalties of several hundred dollars for minor citations to thousands of dollars for serious violations. There's no limit to the number of citations a company can receive, and penalties increase with the frequency of violations, says Grote Adams.

Compliance, too, comes with a price tag. Training budgets for companies with fewer than 50 employees typically range between $3,000 and $5,000 per year, Grote Adams says. Companies that hire outside companies to conduct preventative inspections should expect to pay several hundred dollars to $1,000, depending on the size of the job site.

Culture of Safety

In 2010, OSHA began a push to require employers to implement in-house Injury and Illness Prevention Programs. "Instead of waiting for a government inspection or a workplace tragedy, to address problems, employers would be required to develop a plan to find and fix the safety and health hazards in their facilities that might kill or injure workers," says Allen.

In advance of the recommendation becoming a requirement, some local construction companies have already worked with consultants such as Safex or developed their own companywide prevention programs.

Turner Construction Co. is "100 percent dedicated to safety," says Kyle Rooney, vice president and general manager of the Columbus office. The Manhattan-based company's recent Central Ohio projects include Huntington Park, the Nationwide Children's Hospital expansion, the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center expansion and the new Hilton Columbus Downtown.

Turner's Central Ohio safety director Layne Wortman oversees a staff of about 12 full-time safety policy administrators. They work to ensure that Turner's four Ohio offices stay certified under OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program (VPP). Certification "basically gives us a seal of approval that we have a program that exceeds OSHA's expectations," says Wortman. To be recognized, companies must implement effective safety management programs and maintain injury and illness rates below U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics averages for their particular industries.

Turner is one of only nine VPP-certified private builders in Ohio, according to OSHA's most recent list, issued in November. In addition to letting contractors know that Turner has a good record of incident management, "It allows us to be taken off the radar for the general scheduled inspections that OSHA typically does for projects," says Wortman. "The only time that OSHA would be on our job site is for re-inspection for the program, or [if] a serious incident would take place."

Creating a culture of safety requires daily implementation of processes that prompt field employees to be aware of their own safety and the safety of their colleagues, says Rooney: "We believe that a good safety program is equal parts process and culture." To that end, he says, Turner pushes for its injury program LIFE, or Living Injury Free Everyday, to be the foremost priority of every employee.

Safety Begins with Structure

Construction companies face additional regulations depending on the population around which they'll be working. Health care is perhaps the most stringent. Like Turner, Quandel Construction Group has worked on a number of local health-care projects, including Riverside Methodist, Doctor's and Mount Carmel East hospitals. A safety checklist, composed by the safety director in Quandel's Pennsylvania headquarters, is channeled through six offices and implemented on each worksite by local field managers and site superintendents.

Quandel's special projects division manages renovations in hospitals where patient safety and infection control are essential. "I visit every site during the week. I enforce our policies inside the hospitals. There's such a long list of things that you have to do," says Jason Stumbo, field manager of operations in the special projects division in Quandel's Columbus office.

"When I show up on the job, there's a daily infection control checklist and a daily safety checklist that we go through," says Stumbo. Each field employee is trained in infection control as well as the general OSHA regulations that apply to the construction industry.

Though training in OSHA's vast safety measures can be a "huge thing to wrestle down," Stumbo says the end result is worthwhile. "The continuous training it takes makes safety top of mind on all of our jobs, so that we can be sure that we send the guys home safe every day."

Kitty McConnell is a reporter for Columbus C.E.O.