Metals industry faces major OSHA crackdown, veteran OSHA defense attorney warns

June 30, 2011

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is getting tough on hazards in the so-called primary metals industries, and this means just about any plant that extracts or refines metals like iron, lead, nickel or tin will face multiple OSHA inspections, wrote LeClairRyan attorney Joseph P. Paranac, Jr., in a June 20 column on

"This extraordinary level of scrutiny comes in the wake of what OSHA has described as serious and frequent safety problems in the sector," wrote the veteran OSHA defense attorney, a Newark-based shareholder in the national law firm. "OSHA's National Emphasis Program for the Primary Metals Industries will be a big change for employers."

The inspections program (full details of which can be found in a 21-page Adobe PDF file at affects makers of nails, pipes, insulated wires and cables, and other manufacturers that extract or refine primary metals. This work typically involves hazards such as metal dusts and fumes, carbon monoxide, toxins like lead or silica, and high levels of noise and heat. By stepping up inspections, OSHA's so-called National Emphasis Program aims to force metals manufacturers to pay more attention to these serious dangers. "Simply put, it means they will be seeing a lot of OSHA," Paranac wrote. "Even if the first inspection goes off without a hitch, employers can count on at least two follow-ups each year. And we are not talking about slaps on the wrist here: The Obama administration's OSHA offices have been steadily ramping up penalties."

In fact, the attorney advised, the typical fine for safety violations is now approximately double what it might have been in 2007. "Employers that brazenly fail to prepare for these inspections will likely face substantial penalties," Paranac noted. "Even relatively safe shops that make a few compliance slipups could be hit with a $50,000 fine."

To help employers prepare, Paranac offered a number of constructive tips in the column. These include details on how to work with an experienced consultant — ideally a former OSHA inspector with years of experience — to conduct a thorough self-assessment that exposes any potential safety problems at the facility.

"Clearly, OSHA will look at whether employees are wearing respirators where required, and whether those and other Personal Protective Equipment meet the appropriate specifications," he wrote. "Is the level of toxin exposure over the Permissible Exposure Limit? Are the appropriate exhaust systems and fans in place?"

Many plants fail to carry out air-testing as required because they regard it as a hassle, he said. However, OSHA's compliance officers will undoubtedly be looking closely at air quality during these inspections. "This could involve steps such as attaching air-samplers to employees' mouths for the entirety of an eight-hour shift," the attorney warned.

Among other things, inspectors also will be most interested in whether the required Material Safety Data Sheet is in place for each chemical used.

After enumerating specific compliance tips for the primary metals industry, the veteran attorney wrapped up the article with a straightforward suggestion: "The regulatory environment clearly has grown… well, hazardous," he wrote. "The safest approach is to spend the time and money needed to run a clean and compliant operation. Inspectors, after all, may already be headed to your facility."

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