by Janet L. Keyes, CIH and Carol A. Keyes, CSP
You get a letter in the mail: “If you don’t have this year’s OSHA posters up, you could be fined thousands of dollars.”
A package arrives for you: “OSHA will fine you thousands and thousands of dollars if you aren’t in compliance. But you can prevent that by using our OSHA compliance program. There’s absolutely no risk. If you don’t like it, return it in three days for your money back.”
An email: “We make OSHA compliance easy. Save yourself thousands of dollars in fines by subscribing to our OSHA compliance service.
A phone call: “I’m with the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Compliance Office, calling to provide you with OSHA’s required written hazard communication program. The cost is $1,000. We can accept credit card payments. If you don’t pay, OSHA can inspect you, assess heavy fines and even shut down your shop.”
In person: “I’m with OSHA Government Services, and I was just in your shop to do a compliance audit. I found some problems. If you agree to fix them, we’ll give you a significant reduction in the penalty if you pay it now. If you don’t pay it in time, penalties will increase tenfold.”
Scams. All of these are scaremongering scams.
All of them have a kernel of truth embedded in their coatings of lies.
You are supposed to post certain labor posters, including OSHA’s Safety and Health on the Job poster. The purpose of the posters: to ensure employees know their rights. But the posters are available for free from the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. They don’t change often – the only one that may go out of date pretty often is the minimum wage poster.
Want to know how many companies were cited for not having the Job Safety and Health poster in Minnesota in the last 22 years? Nine. The penalties: $0 to $1,000. The most recent was 13 years ago, an inspection because of a complaint. Yes, you should have the poster. But to get them, go to dli.mn.gov, not to your wallet. There is also a link to posters in the Resource Library of the Alliance’s website, aaspmn.org.
OSHA does require certain written compliance programs. For instance, you need to have a written hazard communication program, describing how you will ensure employees are trained on chemical hazards, how you will make sure containers are labeled and how you will handle safety data sheets. A manual that you purchase won’t train your employees or keep your safety data sheets. At best, it may offer an easy-to-read version of the standard. But OSHA offers that, available at no cost by looking for the A-Z index on OSHA.gov and on the Free Resources page of the Safety and Health at Work section of Minnesota OSHA’s website, dli.mn.gov.
OSHA will never offer to sell you any type of safety and health program. They just aren’t in the business of doing that. The OSHA and MNOSHA websites will provide you with free guides and templates from which you can develop your own programs. But asking for payment? No.
OSHA will do enforcement inspections. They don’t call them compliance audits and it would be rare for an inspection to be as in-depth as the term audit implies. But the safety and health compliance officers will not start the inspection by wandering around your shop. They will show up at the front door, ask for an owner or manager, present their credentials and describe why they are there.
If compliance officers find problems, they will usually tell you what those were before they leave your shop. But they will never ask for penalty payment then. They will discuss penalties in general during this closing conference, but any penalties won’t be levied until you receive the citation by registered mail. They don’t accept credit card payments – penalties have to be paid by check or money order payable to “Minnesota Department of Labor & Industry, MNOSHA.”
OSHA penalties can be steep. An Ohio paint company is currently contesting $709,960 in penalties. But they had one employee killed and nine injured in an explosion. OSHA believes the company knew the hazard and knew how it should have been controlled, but willfully chose to ignore OSHA’s requirements. The big guns come out for willful and repeated violations or for violations that are not abated. Penalties for those can go as high as $70,000 per violation or, for failure to abate, up to $7,000 per day per violation. But those are uncommon.
Serious violations, those that could cause death or serious harm, can carry penalties of up to $7,000 in Minnesota. But MNOSHA reduces the amount up to 95 percent for small companies that have shown an effort to provide a safe workplace and don’t have a recent history of violations. For small companies, penalties are more likely to be less than $1,000 than in the thousands of dollars.
OSHA can go to court to compel a company to stop hazardous activities. But they can’t shut down your shop completely. In 2019, Minnesota OSHA asked the court to order Water Gremlin to stop lead casting work because employees were bringing lead dust home, harming their children. When the remedial action wasn’t complete within three days, OSHA had to go to court again, to extend the order. Simply telling a shop to shut down? It doesn’t happen.
It’s in your best interests to comply with OSHA requirements. A safe workplace is more efficient and costs you less in the end. But the requirements can be confusing for someone who doesn’t speak the language – just as the language of car repair is confusing to me. Keep your credit card in your pocket. Check credentials. If you get an odd call from someone claiming to be from OSHA, ask for their number to call them back. Then check with us. And if you think you were scammed, report it to ftc.gov/complaint, so you help the next business owner avoid your mistake.