The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, is a government body tasked with regulating safety for workers, primarily in physical labor occupations, across the United States. They set the rules for transporting materials and chemicals, operating machinery, and other such guidelines to keep workers safe and to give them a voice when conditions might not otherwise be up to par. OSHA is your friend as a business owner, but there are certain situations in which interaction with OSHA can be a bit nerve-wracking for a company’s management.
OSHA investigations usually stem from serious injuries, fatalities, and large-scale catastrophes that occur in the workplace. Especially in the case of fatalities, OSHA is there for both the worker and for the company. For the employee and their family, and by extension the safety of other employees, OSHA will look into the circumstances surrounding the death or injury and determine if the company or its policies were fully or partially to blame for the incident. On the other hand, as long as you have adhered to OSHA guidelines, the investigation can help protect you from legal action if it is concluded that your company was not at fault.
However, OSHA does have the right to re-open an investigation, even if it had previously reached a conclusion and closed it. This can be a bit worrying for management who have already been told that they were in the clear. However, the re-opened investigation must be concluded within six months of the original incident, so there is a fairly small statute of limitations on this re-opening period.
For example, in June of 2013, a veteran mechanic working for contractor Schindler Elevators was killed while installing an elevator in the new football stadium of the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara. The man was apparently struck by an elevator counterweight while working at the bottom of the shaft.
OSHA sent a letter on October 14th to Schindler, concluding that they found no violations and that the investigation was closing.
However, a letter recently reached Schindler stating that the investigation was now back open, following “an internal review of the case [in which] an experienced staffer raised questions.”
While those “questions” were not specifically revealed, the investigation can now go on as long as December 11th.
Another investigation stemming from the same site project is also underway, as an employee of a steel company contracted for the stadium was killed in an accident just one day after OSHA issued its no-violation letter to Schindler.
In this case, the employee was crushed by a stack of steel rebar (used in reinforcing concrete) when it fell from his truck during unloading. This case is still pending initial investigation.
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For most businesses, a re-opening of an investigation, or even the first instance of an OSHA investigation is something to try and avoid through prevention, but also not to worry too much about as far as repercussions. As long as you have done your due diligence in following safety regulations, you don’t have anything to worry about. However, it is important to remember that, in many cases, your responsibility in a case can extend to the worker(s) involved themselves because you are required to provide certain safety training and policies, and enforce them.