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Can OSHA inspect my business when I'm not present?

One of the biggest concerns of a business owner is the chance that his or her business will be inspected at a time when they can not be present. It’s not that they want to conceal information or deny access to certain areas, it’s merely a sense of maintaining control over one’s fate and having proper representation. Under the Occupational Safety & Health Act, business owners (employers) have the right to be present or designate a representative to act on his or her behalf during any investigation or inspection.

If the "boss" never leaves the facility, then there is not a problem, but that’s not practical for most businesses, including veterinary hospitals. Unless some precautions have been taken in advance, the owner may unintentionally waive that right in an inspection. If an employee admits an OSHA Compliance Officer to the facility for an inspection in the owner’s absence, it is usually assumed that the employee has the authority to do so. If the Compliance Officer is admitted, then any evidence or statements obtained are generally used to determine the existence of a violation and to set the proposed fine.

Every business should identify those individuals who are authorized to act on behalf of the owner in his or her absence and provide specific guidance on the parameters of that authority. For instance, the associate veterinarian may have the authority to make customer satisfaction decisions in addition the medical duties normally associated with that position; however, the associate veterinarian may be required to contact the owner prior to signing any binding agreement involving the practice. The same philosophy is true for regulatory compliance matters - define the parameters of authority for all staff members and put it in writing!

Most OSHA inspectors (called Compliance Officers) understand the logic behind this right and are respectful of it.  However, they are not going to let it be used as tactic to conceal hazards or sideline an inspection. They will be agressive in insisting that "someone" is in charge at the moment and that "manager" is the all they need to proceed.  To protect the owner's rights, every practice should have a written policy reflecting the owner’s rights and the staff’s authority during an inspection. This written statement is vital if the owner DOES NOT WAIVE his or her right to be present during an inspection! Although this written policy would not be useful as an unreasonably long delay tactic, it would normally be enough to postpone an inspection until the staff could contact an owner who is just "off for the day."

A copy of the policy should be placed on the employee bulletin board and discussed in a staff meeting. If an employee improperly admits the Compliance Officer in the absence of the owner, having this document will not normally obliterate any findings, but it would certainly be valuable in negotiations to reduce or eliminate any fines that may be imposed as a result of the inspection. Click here for an example of this kind of policy.

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Did You Know...?

Many OSHA complaints do not result in an on-site inspection.  If the Compliance Officer believes the complaint is primarily a vendetta or if the nature of the complaint suggests a very minor infraction, they often will let the business submit photographs or evidence that the problem does not exist or has been corrected.