When Is an OSHA Investigation Really Over?

Imagine the worst has happened in your workplace. An accident has occurred and a worker has lost his or her life. OSHA begins its investigation into the fatality, and this process takes many months. Finally, you receive a notice that your organization has been cleared. OSHA has found that no violation occurred leading or contributing to the fatality. Can you breathe a sigh of relief?

Apparently not. You can see an example of what happens when OSHA changes its mind by looking at what happened recently with Schindler Elevator in Santa Clara. In June, a worker died on the job. In mid-October, the employer received a “no violation” notice from OSHA. About a week later, the state agency took it back. They said they had more questions that needed to be answered and reviewed the evidence again. Cal-OSHA has now issued several citations totaling $54,000, indicating serious violations on the part of the employer. Given the initial finding and this complete 180 turnaround, it’s likely that the employer will dispute this fine.

Can OSHA Go Back on Its Decision?

According to federal law, OSHA citations must be issued within six months following identification of the violations. Because the clock hadn’t yet run out on the investigation time frame for Schindler Elevator, the agency was permitted to reopen the case and completely change its findings based on a reexamination of the evidence. There’s no “double jeopardy” protection for employers in this situation. They can be found blameless and later penalized with citations and fines for the same incident.

Takeaway Tips

  • Don’t assume that a notice of “no violation” means you are in the clear and safe from penalties. Make sure your safety administrator is staying on top of this kind of situation until it’s really over.
  • Take a very close look at the incident regardless of what OSHA finds. As it happens, even OSHA investigators sometimes miss important details or come to the wrong conclusion. You don’t want another workplace fatality to occur that could have been prevented.
  • Get a second opinion. Have a trusted safety partner review your procedures and policies to ensure that your workplace is safe. For best results, do this now instead of waiting for a major workplace safety incident!