A lack of exit signs and eye wash stations in your store can lead up to hefty OSHA fines.
A lack of exit signs and eye wash stations in your store can lead up to hefty OSHA fines.

Last year Joe Cimino, owner of Dolphin Pool Supply in Long Island, N.Y., received a call from the U.S. Department of Labor.

It had come to the DOL’s attention that a former Dolphin employee was having health problems, and an allergist suggested that the troubles may have been caused by high levels of chlorine in the air at the retail outlet. The DOL representative asked when Cimino had last performed an air-quality test in the store.

“I was completely clueless that that was something that we even had to do,” he says.

A few days later, he received a fax from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a division of the DOL. The notice stated that a claim had been filed about safety issues at Dolphin Pool, one of which concerned high levels of chlorine in the air. A few weeks later, an OSHA inspector arrived, unannounced, on Dolphin’s front door.

“She went around every square inch of the store, looking at everything, taking notes, asking questions,” says Cimino. “Some of the stuff I really didn’t have answers to.”

The inspector checked the air quality and found no evidence of unhealthy air. In fact, all of the claims against Dolphin went unsubstantiated during that visit. However, OSHA did issue other citations to Cimino’s business for infractions that included failing to place an exit sign over a door and lack of an employee fire-extinguisher-usage program. Those infractions carried a price tag of nearly $5,000.

“It’s a pretty big hit for us,” says Cimino.

You’re not alone

Cimino’s unawareness regarding OSHA compliance isn’t a rarity. In fact, after the inspection, he informally surveyed several of his colleagues, only to discover that they weren’t completely up to date on all relevant OSHA regulations either.

In order to keep his employees safe, Cimino had his business inspected by the fire marshal on a regular basis and set up chemical education classes for his employees. To his knowledge that was enough. “I want my people to be safe,” says Cimino. “The last thing I want is one of my guys getting hurt.”

The good news is that getting and staying OSHA compliant isn’t as difficult as you may think. By using the tools that OSHA provides, you can keep your workers safe and spare yourself the aggravation of getting slapped with hefty fines.

So what is OSHA anyway?

OSHA was created by Congress with the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, with the goal of assuring safe and healthful working conditions. Yet, as beneficial and protective as that sounds, some business owners consider the agency a fairly nefarious branch of the government.

“OSHA is generally seen as a government agency that shows up and gets people in trouble, but that’s actually not our primary mission,” says Brian Hawthorne, press officer for the U.S. Department of Labor. “OSHA’s primary responsibility is to protect workers in the workplace … and to provide guidance for both employers and employees [about] how to stay safe.”

And the journey to keeping your business OSHA compliant starts with a trip to the website: OSHA.gov.

Pool store owners can log onto the website and enter in any item in the search tool (e.g. “chlorine”) and up will pop more information than you ever wanted to know about laws pertaining to those chemicals. You also can click on “Law & Regulations” from the home page, which will take you to “OSHA Law & Regulations.” Here you’ll find links to all current OSHA standards as well as information on the workplace health and safety standards rulemaking process.

“The [regulations] are all going to be on OSHA.gov, and any employer can always search for those,” Hawthorne says. You also can find best practices and general tips on topics such as keeping workers safe in the heat and cold, Hawthorne says.

The breadth and depth of the information that can pop up from a simple term search or from the “OSHA Law & Regulations” page may be a bit overwhelming. So, if you don’t relish the idea of poring over stacks of documents that use words such as “codification” and “subparagraphs,” there is another way to find out exactly what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong without setting yourself up for heavy fines. You simply have to arrange for an on-site consultation.

OSHA consultations

By clicking the “Free On-site Consultation” tab on the OSHA homepage, business owners can find out how they can get an OSHA consultant to come to their business for a free health and safety consultation.

“You can request a consultation with an advisor to come to a business and show you things that may be a potential hazard and how to mitigate them,” says Hawthorne. “And it is not at all tied to any kind of inspection or the negative side of what OSHA does.”

That means you won’t be cited or fined for infractions an inspector may find in the store or warehouse. Appointments are scheduled based on the consultant’s availability, so the wait times will vary. And OSHA only requires company owners to fix any hazards that the inspectors find in the business in a timely manner, says Hawthorne.

Companies are entitled to one consultation a year. But business owners who feel like they need a little more help can request it. “If they wish or feel [it’s] necessary, [they] can request a follow-up,” says Stephen Barr, senior managing director, office of public affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor.

This deal may sound too good to be true, but it isn’t. “About 10 years ago it was brought to my attention that [OSHA] offered a consult service,” says Ted Lawrence, corporate retail category manager for Covington, La.-based PoolCorp. “I [was] very skeptical. [I thought] of course they’re going to ding you for all of these violations — you’re letting the enemy in your house. And that’s really not the case.”

Lawrence typically works with small family-owned pool and spa businesses, and over the years he has made thousands of referrals to OSHA’s on-site consultation services. He’s even been on hand during many of those evaluations and has found that the number-one infraction is … drumroll please …. improper chemical product placement. According to OSHA, liquid chemicals cannot be placed over solids because if they spill, they may react with a solid on a lower shelf, says Lawrence. And this infraction is clearly a very easy fix.

Other common infractions that Lawrence has witnessed involve proper training of forklift operators and proper placement of Safety Data Sheets — information on hazardous chemicals in your store that must be available to consumers as well as your employees.

Staying up to date

It can be tough to keep abreast of changes made by any regulatory agency. It’s especially tough when ignorance is not accepted as an excuse.

It’s worth noting that OSHA regulations are not typically updated on a systematic basis (annually, semi-annually, etc...). They typically come about if the science behind a regulation has changed or if an industry or advocate group petitions for change, says Hawthorne. And that can happen at any time.

Fortunately, OSHA offers updates. “We usually issue press releases announcing new rules,” says Kimberly Darby, a spokesperson for the OSHA Office of Communications. Business owners and managers can have those press releases sent straight to their inbox by signing up on the U.S. Department of Labor website: http://www.dol.gov/newsroom/releases/agency/osha

Store owners also are free to chat with OSHA compliance assistance specialists, who can provide general information about OSHA standards and compliance assistance resources. “They respond to requests for help from a variety of groups, including small businesses, trade associations, union locals, and community and faith-based groups,” says Darby. “They are available for seminars, workshops, and speaking events.” More information can be found here: http://www.osha.gov/dcsp/compliance_assistance/cas.html

OSHA also typically publishes new or updated regulations in QuickTakes, its twice-monthly newsletter. Individuals can subscribe to the publication directly from OSHA’s homepage.

Outside services

The National Swimming Pool Foundation is another avenue companies can explore to make sure that a business is OSHA compliant. The organization offers online training courses that cover topics ranging from indoor air quality and chlorine safety to behavior-based safety and hazard communication. Alex Antoniou, NSPF’s chief marketing and information officer, selected the catalog of classes that are available on the site, based on his previous experience as director of aquatics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Though largely tailored to those who work in aquatics facilities, Antoniou believes the courses hold relevance to retailers as well. “A lot of [people who work in pool retailing outlets] are handling chemicals, they’re being exposed to potentially unsafe conditions, so having the appropriate training is good for them, too,” he says.

The classes are sourced from a third-party e-learning provider, but they do meet OSHA requirements. Most of the online classes are priced at around $20, and when employees finish the courses they can print out a certificate of completion. Store owners can then file away the certificates for easy retrieval in case they ever do get audited by OSHA. To access NSPF’s online library of classes, simply log onto this website: http://nspfcart.eproacademy.org/store/comersus_listItems.asp?idCategory=29

There are plenty of resources available, mostly at no expense to store owners, to help your business get and stay OSHA compliant. But if you do happen to get sandbagged by an OSHA citation, do not panic. “There is an appeal process,” says Hawthorne. “Many of the larger fines that are imposed are ultimately reduced through settlement and other arrangements, so that initial citation may not reflect the final arrangement.”

Ways and Means

Help is only a call or click away

To request an OSHA on-site consultation or locate your nearest OSHA Consultation Office, visit https://www.osha.gov/dcsp/smallbusiness/consult.html or call 800-321-OSHA (6742).

For questions, to get advice, or report an emergency or fatality, contact your nearest OSHA office, visit www.osha.gov or call 800-321-OSHA (6742) or 877/889-5627.

To find OSHA Compliance Assistance specialists, contact your local OSHA office or visit www.osha.gov/dcsp/compliance_assistance/cas.html.

To access the National Swimming Pool Foundation’s online library of OSHA compliance classes, visit http://nspfcart.eproacademy.org/store/comersus_listItems.asp?idCategory=29