With lives on the line and OSHA stepping up enforcement, safety compliance is more important than ever for today’s surveying and mapping firms.

Surveyors beware: On Oct. 16, 2012, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a new directive to help compliance officers better understand how to inspect roadway and highway work zones and issue citations for violations of the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).

According to Ronald E. Koons, co-owner along with his wife Sandee, of the consulting firm RoSaKo Safety, the directive ups the ante for firms and individuals who work on or near roadways. “Right now, there are a lot of OSHA compliance officers who have no knowledge of MUTCD and don’t fully understand the requirements; they don’t even know if workers are wearing the right type of vest,” he explains. “With this new directive, I think we’re going to see an increased emphasis on MUTCD compliance from officers around the country. They’re going to be more cognizant of the rules for traffic safety and more proactive about asking questions and issuing citations.”

Koons says the move is in line with the pro-labor stance of the Obama administration and is a harbinger of what to expect over the next three years. The challenge, he says, isn’t just that OSHA is stepping up enforcement, but that it’s doing so in a way that makes it difficult for businesses--especially small businesses--to keep up with the changes.

One example is in the fall protection compliance guidelines, which have been canceled and replaced several times within the last few years. “OSHA is re-interpreting the same regulations they’ve had for 15 years,” Koons says. “They’re essentially saying, ‘We used to let you do it this way, but we’re not going to anymore.’ It’s very difficult to comply when the rules keep changing.”

Even government agencies have trouble keeping up. Koons relates an example from a recent situation in which a work vehicle on the way to a jobsite hit a patch of black ice and crashed, killing two of its occupants. It took Koons almost two hours and conversations with numerous high-ranking officials within the state’s labor department to find out whether the fatalities were reportable as a work-related incident. “They expect a small business owner with two employees to understand their rules and regulations, yet I had to go through eight people at their own agency before someone could give me an answer,” Koons says. “And the cost of noncompliance is high. If you don’t report a fatality when you’re required to, the fine can be up to $5,000 per day--enough to put most small companies out of business.”

Economic conditions have exacerbated the challenge for many firms. Companies are running much leaner than they were five years ago; as a result, they often have to bring additional people in quickly, either as new employees or subcontractors, when they’re faced with handling a large project. In the rush to get the job done, safety training may be neglected or given insufficient attention.

“Firms might give a quick safety ‘pep talk,’ but is five minutes of talking about something that could save your life really adequate training?” Koons asks. “If employees don’t understand how, when and where to use safety gear, then it doesn’t really do any good to provide it. And that’s going to become increasingly important as OSHA starts cracking down.”

Firms that rely on subcontractors should be especially vigilant. If the subcontractor lacks safety equipment, training or insurance, that can leave the contracting company open to potential liability. “If something happens on the job, the contracting company can get dragged into it because they’re the ones managing the contract,” Koons says.

He recommends that companies ask key questions on their contract or written agreement with subcontractors, such as: Have you had safety training related to the tasks at hand? Do you have a written safety program? Do you have the equipment and safety items you need to do this job? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then the contractor should either be willing to provide these items or look for someone else to do the work. “Getting the documentation in writing is imperative, because if a citation is issued, the contracting company can then prove that they fulfilled their responsibilities,” Koons says. “They’re not responsible for supervising the subcontractor. That’s what I call an affirmative defense.”

Such an approach is equally important when dealing with employee safety. A company that has provided the necessary safety equipment and training, has a written safety program in place, and has documentation outlining disciplinary measures for failure to comply will be in a much better position if an employee receives a noncompliance citation. “If you do everything right up front, then even if your employees don’t do the right thing in the field, you may be OK from an OSHA standpoint,” Koons says.

Being proactive is key, both in guarding against OSHA citations and in preventing accidents from occurring in the field. Surveying and mapping professionals should seek to stay informed of changes to compliance guidelines, obtain adequate training, use the appropriate safety gear and document their safety strategy. According to Koons, no area of safety should be overlooked. Even something as simple as providing crampons during icy conditions in the winter, and sun and insect protection in the summer can help keep workers safe. “The problem is that sometimes surveyors tend to think there’s a certain amount of risk they have to put up with because of the nature of the business,” Koons says. “We have to look beyond that.”

Ron Koons can be reached atrosakosafety@prodigy.net.

Do you have a question about OSHA compliance or safety? Email your question to Ron Koons with the subject line, “POB Safety Q&A,” and he will address your question in an upcoming issue of POB.