by Alana Quartuccio
Knock, knock. OSHA is at your door, and you may be on the hook for fines that carry a pretty hefty price tag! In the case of one New Jersey shop, that price tag held a whopping $44,000 in fines!
Surely, OSHA is no stranger to the body shop world. The agency is known to make the occasional visit for a random inspection, or perhaps their appearance was triggered by something or someone. Often, it can be a costly visit for the body shop, but collision repairers around the Garden State are calling this $44,000 price tag a bit too exorbitant for the short-changed auto body world.
According to AASP/NJ Executive Director Charles Bryant, it appears OSHA may be making more visits to shops than they have previously. While it’s not unusual for a shop to face large fines, $44,000 seems a bit extreme.
“If OSHA comes to your shop, they most likely will find something – it can be something as simple as an extension cord problem,” explained Bryant. “Sometimes, the fines can be pretty high, like say $10,000 or $15,000, but $44,000 is higher than anything I’ve ever heard of before.”
Clearly, this alarmingly high $44,000 fine has given collision repairers a lot to talk about.
It was a topic of conversation during the July Out of Body Podcast, produced by Thomas Greco Publishing (available at bit.ly/OOBE0723). Co-star Edward Day (Collision Restoration; Fairfield) called the fine “ridiculous.”
“I think it’s an overreach on OSHA’s part,” he claimed. “They could have handled that differently. I don’t care if the shop is bringing in $7 to $10 million a year; a $44,000 fine is a lot of their profit. I think the OSHA guy should maybe have sat down with the shop owner and educated them.”
Day believes other factors may be playing a role in fines like this being so extreme.
“I think they are out of money. I think the state is out of money. I think the feds are out of money, and now they are looking for revenue.”
In his 40 years of business, Day said he’s only had OSHA visit his business once – 25 years ago. And he knows it had to be what is known as “a rat call,” meaning a former disgruntled employee called in a complaint to OSHA which elicited the visit.
“OSHA doesn’t randomly walk in unless they receive a phone call or something is just so egregious, like if they were to drive by your shop and see actual hazardous waste piled up at your door. Most of the time, it comes about because someone got pissed off because you fired them, and they called OSHA on you.”
Auto body shops are on OSHA’s high-hazard list as part of what is known as their Emphasis Program, according to American Compliance Safety Compliance Advisor Samuel Sepulveda. “They go after auto body shops because they are the type of business with a high risk of incidents and accidents.”
OSHA will look for everything they can find, even things that may not be visible to the eye, according to Sepulveda. He admitted that it’s very rare to see fines total as much as $44,000, but there are many factors that can play a role in leading to such a high amount.
“We know that OSHA did give some breathing room when they gave the fines to this shop. It could have been $60,000 or even higher. They had the violations [to amount to these fines]. I guess, in their mind, they figured they’d give the shop a bit of a break, but when you have a shop with less than 20 employees and you get a bill for $44,000, that is not a break.”
A fine in such a high amount would not be uncommon for a mid-to-large size operation as fines are based on the number of employees a business has, he explained. It’s also based on the seriousness of the fine. “If they find something that they consider a serious electrical violation, the fine could be $5,000 or $6,000 per violation, and they could find 10 of those violations.”
There are three reasons OSHA will visit a shop, according to Sepulveda, the first being the aforementioned Emphasis Program where they are paying special attention to body shop businesses due to their high risk of incidents. The second is what Day alluded to if someone were to call in a complaint, and the third is if a shop has to call and report an incident because someone became injured or died on the property.
“In the last case, you have eight to 24 hours to report it. That is not a lot of time to fix things, so OSHA is likely to find something when they come in.”
There is a negotiation process where OSHA will likely offer discounts or fines or cut some breaks if the business is willing to fix things within a certain amount of time.
How one handles the visit can also play a big role in the overall outcome.
“If OSHA sees you are not providing information right away, it opens the door for them to think about what else could be wrong with the place,” suggested Sepulveda. “So, they will come back, and they will keep coming back. This was the issue with this particular shop. It seems that there has been a change in personnel in the area, and they are more thorough than others have been in the past, which is resulting in higher and more expensive fines.”
Day’s experience is proof that positive outcomes can be achieved if one is willing to work with OSHA. He told listeners on the Out of Body podcast that he welcomed his OSHA representative with a friendly joke, stating, “Let me show you all the things I’m doing wrong,” which resulted in a smile and made for an easier experience.
“Watch what you say when they walk in the door,” Day advised. “Shut your mouth and listen to them. If you jump down their throat and tell them there are other shops down the road in much worse shape, you are done. Be pleasant.”
How can a collision repair facility best be ready for a visit? If a shop has the manpower to do so, having someone on staff to manage all safety requirements is key, but most shops can’t afford to keep someone on salary for $70,000 or $80,000 just to keep the facility compliant.
Many body shops have brought in outside consultants to access their operation and help them meet all requirements.
“No shop is perfect,” said Day of his experience. “We had American Compliance come in. They were valuable and easy to get along with. We have our safety sheets; we do our respirator tests. Our guys who had beards shaved them down to make sure they fit under their masks.”
Bringing in an outside consultant like American Compliance is often a better option, as it likely amounts to only five to 10 percent of the cost it would take to have someone on staff full-time to take care of compliance issues.
“It’s not about avoiding fines 100 percent,” Sepulveda stated. “It’s about reducing them. We can go in and fight those fines. OSHA will give you a discount and perhaps reduce a $10,000 fine down to $5,000 just by knowing you have a safety program in place.”
Bryant agreed it’s a good idea to bring in qualified people to review the shop: “OSHA seems to be visiting shops a lot more frequently. Contact someone to review your shop before you get a visit.”
Sepulveda stressed that he is in the line of work he is in because he truly believes in helping people stay safe.
“We are in this field because we believe in it,” he shared. “We want to help as much as we can, and we want people to be safe out there.”
Want more? Check out the September 2023 issue of New Jersey Automotive!