Safety First News
Employers Brace For OSHA Whistleblowing App
February 28, 2016
What might happen if anyone could take a picture and easily report a safety issue to OSHA? There is an upcoming whistleblowing smartphone application (App) that may allow workers to take a picture of their employer’s ineffective safety efforts and report them directly to OSHA. Uh-oh.
Currently, more than 25% of all OSHA workplace inspections result from employee complaints. This App could make the complaint filing process easier and quicker for employees. The App will soon be a reality, and the number of complaint-related inspections may be on the rise.
The App, which doesn’t have a name yet, is being built by SeeClick Fix, a civic tech company based in New Haven, CT that made a name for itself by helping urbanites report things like graffiti and potholes to local authorities. The App was funded by Workers Lab, an Oakland-based organization, in order for them to report problems to the appropriate agency.
The App may include photos and/or videos to the complaint as well. This addition could help OSHA make the decision to inspect the employer or not, and the additional media could be used as evidence in making the case for citations and penalties against the employer.
How Would It Work?
The operation of the App under development would be simple. Say, for example, a construction company that doesn’t want to properly utilize fall protection, doesn’t have a safety manager and/or doesn’t have a safety program, instructs workers to perform tasks unsafely. Let’s assume a worker suggested a safer way to do the task and it wasn’t received well by the employer. Instead of the worker asking a friend of a friend of a friend what to do, the worker could download the App, possibly take a picture of the suspected safety violation, and then answer questions from the App about the nature of the problem. Based on the worker’s answers and location, the App would transfer the worker’s complaint to the appropriate agency; in this case, the local OSHA office.
The App could be used for almost any other sort of employment-related complaint such as wage-related disputes, sexual harassment, discrimination, environmental issues, and the like.
There is a potential for the App to organize complaints in such a way that a single workplace could be flagged for having a certain number of complaints from workers, which could trigger an investigation by the Department of Labor.
How Can Employers Prepare?
First of all, an employer of any size should have a suitable and appropriate safety program to help protect workers from serious injuries. If a safety program is not in place, begin building one. Some workers’ compensation insurance companies can help with generic, free safety programs that can be used as a starting point from which to build. A good safety program includes required documentation and training, periodic hazard inspections, recordkeeping, and studies involving air sampling, noise sampling and ergonomics may also be required. Don’t forget to involve workers in the safety program, which may help to reduce the likelihood of safety-related complaints to OSHA in the first place.
Safety Suggestion Box
Implement a mechanism for workers to give feedback or submit ideas for improved safety at the workplace. This could be a simple suggestion box or an email address that goes to someone in charge of receiving the suggestion, or both. Workers should have a way to submit suggestions anonymously. It is important to log all requests and approach the solution as “We are going to do this unless there is a good reason not to do it” (or if there is a better way to achieve the desired results). All requests and company responses should be posted for all to see on a company bulletin board or something of the like. Implementing a “Suggestion Box” program, if managed properly, should negate the need for most any worker to issue a complaint to OSHA. But if a worker issues a complaint and OSHA contacts the company, it would be easy to respond by saying the company takes safety seriously, has one or more methods for workers to submit safety suggestions anonymously, and X% of all safety-related suggestions have been addressed in a sufficient manner. A response like that may reduce the likelihood of a visit from OSHA.
Develop A Company Policy Handbook
Companies should have rules and policies in place in order to establish fair and equitable standards for workers to meet or exceed company expectations. The Company Policy Handbook should be used to treat workers fairly and consistently, which hopefully would minimize the number of disgruntled workers, and anger-induced complaints to OSHA or other agencies.
If Needed, Get Help
Learning all of the responsibilities and laws involving employment and OSHA standards, for example, are full-time jobs. Laws and regulations are always changing, and it may be in the best interest of the company to either hire expertise full-time, or seek help from consultants. The advantage of hiring consultants is typically their amount of experience and expertise on the subject, as well as a wide variety of implementing best-practice solutions in a variety of ways. Another advantage is that after a period of time, the company can decide if the service should continue or not. It’s easy for the company to make a change because there is no need to handle the separation like terminating an employee. The decision to hire full-time vs. hiring a consultant depends on the unique needs of the business, but it may be a good idea to start with a consultant and assess the need to hire someone full-time after a period of time. In some cases, a consultant can set up and organize a program, after which the company can internally manage the program on its own.