There are reasons OHSA investigations take so much time
I read Mikel Kellys recent column (It takes entirely too long to do some things) on March 13 with interest. Its difficult to argue with his basic premise suggesting that some things take entirely too long to complete. I could easily provide my own list of candidates, but my particular interest was piqued by his use of Oregon OSHAs investigation of the recent trench collapse as one illustration.
Mr. Kelly contrasted the time it takes to complete an investigation with the time it takes to put out a publication on deadline. Im sure he realizes that is not exactly an apples to apples comparison, but his comments raise legitimate questions worthy of an answer. In fact, my father called and asked me a similar question after seeing the same TV news report. Dad actually went a bit farther and offered to do the work in a couple of hours.
We do not expect the investigation to take six months, and we didnt actually say that we did. We avoid making such predictions, instead noting that the law allows up to 180 days to complete our work. But it frequently takes much less. Looking at our accident investigations where no worker was killed, we complete nearly one-sixth of them in 30 days or less. (In addition to the investigation itself, that includes the time it takes to physically process and mail any citations after the investigator has completed his or her work and it has been reviewed within Oregon OSHA.) We complete more than a third in 60 days or less, and almost two-thirds in 90 days or less. More than 90 percent are completed before start of the final 30 days allowed by the law.
Now, that is longer than it takes to put out a daily, or even weekly, newspaper. But it compares quite favorably with the time it can take other accident investigation programs such as the national Chemical Safety Board or the National Transportation Safety Board. To be fair, thats still a bit of an apples to oranges comparison, but it is closer.
As I explained to my father, sometimes it is more complicated that it may appear at first blush. In the trench collapse, early media reports described it as an unshored trench. Figuring out why an unshored trench 12 to 15 feet deep collapsed in Oregon soil (even without that weeks rain) would be pretty straightforward. The real question in that case would have been how the worker survived long enough to be rescued indeed, how both workers in the trench when it collapsed survived.
Based on subsequent media reports (since I will not discuss the findings of an investigation we have not yet completed), the trench was not unshored. The employer has contended publicly that it did everything exactly by the book (again, we have not reached a conclusion). So the circumstances are a bit more complicated. And, of course, we are looking at what remains of the trench after a successful rescue effort. The folks who did that outstanding bit of work were obviously not concerned about preserving the scene to make our work easier nor should they have been.
That means that our work will involve multiple interviews, review of engineering reports and other documents, and analysis of the circumstances involved on occasion, we even attempt some level of reconstruction of events. In addition, if we do find problems of any sort, we need to determine what the employer knew or should have known about them and if the employers response was sufficient to comply with the law. And we have to be prepared to defend any conclusion that we reach in court, if necessary. The Oregon OSHA staff involved will be working on other inspections and investigations as well.
Will this take 180 days? Id be very surprised. But it will not be quick, certainly not when measured against the cycle we have come to expect from live TV coverage and the Internet. Oregon OSHA does not often use all the time the law allows us. But we do use the time we need. From where I sit, that is just fine, even if it did disappoint my father.
Michael Wood is the certified safety professional administrator for Oregon OSHA.
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