Many doctors are fearful of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspections but do not really understand that the risk can be easily mitigated. Like any of the other areas of liability we have in our business, being proactive regarding OSHA always results in better outcomes.
Put yourself in the OSHA inspector’s shoes for a few minutes. They are a professionally trained college graduate—with a bachelors or master’s degree in industrial hygiene. Their employer, the federal or state government, encourages them to take continuing education—all geared towards making the workplace safer for employees. They genuinely believe that the businesses should establish a culture of safety to protect those who are employed there. Whether inspecting a factory, a farm, a beauty salon, or a dental office, they expect that the employer has made provisions to keep their workers safe by following the requirements outlined by the OSHA.
They have been assigned to conduct an inspection at Smile Dental Center due to an anonymous complaint from one of its employees who believes that the office is not safe, and that the employer is not following OSHA safety regulations. When the inspector appears at the Smile Dental Center’s front desk, there is obvious confusion—clearly the office is in a state of panic. The inspector is introduced to the office manager and starts the conversation by asking to speak with the individual in the office who oversees compliance—unfortunately, it was a hygienist who left the practice 4 months ago. They then ask to see required documents such as the OSHA Poster and the chemical inventory list. No one knows where these documents are or if they even exist.
The inspector then asks to see the required collection of Safety Data Sheets (SDS) and the written Hazard Communication Plan—they have none, but one of the other employees thinks the previous hygienist who oversaw the program said that they go to “some website” to get them. Because employees are potentially exposed to blood every day, the inspector wants to review the OSHA Manual and the Exposure Control Plan it contains—they say they do not have one! They then ask to see the records of training for OSHA compliance, knowing that training is required yearly in every dental office in the United States and that records of this training must be maintained for 3 years. The office manager says he thinks they went to an OSHA seminar “a couple of years ago,” and wonders if that counts.
At this point the OSHA inspector may be a bit frustrated—can you blame them? They see “willful neglect”—that the business owner never even tried to protect the employees or to achieve compliance in the clinic. Further inspection reveals that there is no eyewash, no written Hazard Communication Program or Exposure Control Plan. There has been no training of employees on how to pick up chemical spills (the inspector does note the presence of many chemicals in the office such as disinfectants, cleaners, alcohol, bonding agents, etc.) and no training or familiarization with the requirements under the Globally Harmonized System (GHS), which is now required. The OSHA inspector, who has been trained on and believes in safety in the workplace, sees a business and a business owner with callous disregard for the safety of its employees.
Having been involved in numerous OSHA inspections of dental offices across the United States, I see a common thread—OSHA inspectors are normally fair and reasonable! In fact, they rarely look beyond the very achievable basic requirements mentioned above. While this statement may surprise you—it should not. OSHA inspectors are a lot like us—they are well trained in their specific area; they believe in what they do and feel they can make a difference. It does not really matter if we believe in, accept or like the fact that OSHA regulations apply in our offices. What matters is that we are business owners and have a business that we must protect. Consider that achieving compliance with OSHA regulations is simply another form of liability insurance that you must have to protect one of your most valuable assets—your dental practice.
Karson L. Carpenter D.D.S serves as president of Compliance Training Partners, a company dedicated to compliance issues in the dental office.