The Case of the $45,000 Snapshot

Date First Published on SafetySmart Compliance: June 4th, 2012
Topics: OSHA Inspections |


June 1, 2012:

I used to hate George Eastmann.

Who’s George Eastmann? He’s the guy who invented the camera. Thanks to his invention, Ol’ Nick almost didn’t make it as an OSHA inspector. Let me tell you what happened.

July 18, 1979

Remember 1979? Jimmy Carter. Hostages in Iran. Long gas lines. “National malaise.”

1979 was the year I got hired as an OSHA inspector. And it was also the year I almost got fired from said position.

It happened at the Shipp Rex Building downtown. Contractors were installing a new plumbing system. Somebody called to complain about improper shoring of the trenches. The AAD [Editor’s note: AAD is short for Associate Area Director, the officer whose duties include the assignment of inspections] sent me over to have a look.

I drove down there but I could have flown. You see, I had been on the job only a couple of months and I was getting impatient at how few assignments I had received. Now, here was my big break, a chance to prove my stuff. A construction site! Look out, world, here comes Nick O’Shay.

Measure for Measure

Looking back, I realize what a fool I was. Inspector O’Shay was out to administer a whuppin’ and those guys at Shipp Rex never had a chance.

During the walkaround [Editor’s Note: This is the part of the inspection where the inspector tours the workplace checking for violations—Click on the link for Model Walkaround Instructions you can use to prepare your employees for OSHA inspections] I went down to the excavation took measurements and did my calculations. Sure enough, I found that the walls of the 12-foot-deep trench weren’t properly supported. It’s a good thing I got there when I did. One more hour and we might have been dealing with a total cave-in!

I cited the construction company for a laundry list of trenching violations and ordered them to fix the problem right away. Later, we’d fix the fine at $45,000.

I was feeling pretty satisfied with myself. But the guys at Shipp Rex were anything but. They kept on insisting that the trench was safe and that my measurements were wrong. To me, it all sounded like your basic denial, typical stuff. “Tell it to the judge,” I was thinking.

But something was not quite right.

“Have you ever measured a trench before, Inspector O’Shay?,” asked one of the construction company officials.

My heart sank a bit. Sure, I’ve measured trenches before. Just not during an actual inspection. Was my lack of experience that obvious?

September 30, 1979

It turns out that I had good cause for concern. The construction company contested [Editor’s Note: Contested is the technical term for appealing an OSHA citation—Click on the link to help figure out if you should contest an OSHA citation] the citation. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge. It was a humbling experience.

During the walkaround, I had been accompanied by a Shipp Rexx company representative. [Editor’s Note: The OSHA laws give employers the right to have a representative accompany the inspector during the walkaround inspection—Click on the link for Model Instructions for Representatives that you can adapt.] Anyway, this company representative brought along a Polaroid and took snapshots of the inspection.

So during the hearing, the construction company presented as Exhibit A, photographs of Nick O’Shay measuring the walls of the trench. And guess what?! The photos showed—as plain as day—that I was holding the tape measure at an angle. The construction company guys had been right all along: My measurements and subsequent calculations were completely wrong!

All the charges against the company were dismissed. And yours truly was in a heap of trouble.

The Moral: Take Your Own Pictures During OSHA Inspections

I did manage to keep my job. In fact, the experience made me a better inspector. Sure, I learned the right way to measure a trench. But the important thing is that I adjusted my attitude and gained a clearer understanding of what an OSHA inspector is all about. Although we can be tough, our job is not to “nail” employers. It’s to help them eliminate hazards and ensure a safe and healthy place to work.

But there’s also an important moral in this story for you employers out there. I’m here to tell you that I still make mistakes during inspections. So do my colleagues, even the most experienced ones. Unfortunately, those mistakes may result in unwarranted citations and fines.

As an employer, you need to be aware of the fallibility of OSHA inspectors and take steps to catch any mistakes they make. One of the best measures is to have a representative accompany the OSHA inspector during the walkaround inspection and take photos, notes and measurements, like the guys from Shipp Rex did.

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words. But for the construction company at Shipp Rex, it was worth a lot more than that. One photo saved them $45,000

Oh, by the way, I’ve since made my peace with George Eastmann.

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Be careful out there and remember, I’ll be watching you.

Nick O’Shay

Fictional OSHA Inspector

Click here for a Special Report on How to Survive an OSHA Inspection

Click here to read more entries from the Diary of Nick O’Shay, fictional OSHA inspector (who we made up as a device to explain how OSHA inspections work in a fun way—who says OSHA has to be boring???)