Witness Statements and OSHA Inspections

During any OSHA inspection, the Compliance Safety and Health Officer (CSHO) will more than likely take witness testimony from crew members that are on site. This CSHO will hand-write the interview answers and ask the employee to sign the witness statement. Most employers and employees do not understand their rights during an OSHA inspection and do not know that they are not required to sign witness statements. This article explores the use of witness statements by OSHA and suggests alternatives to signing a witness statement.

First and foremost, it should be noted that all members of management, including officers, directors, and owners, have the right to have counsel present during any OSHA interview. In addition, any supervisory employee is also considered part of management, and therefore has the ability to have counsel present during the interviews. When OSHA inspects a jobsite, supervisory employees such as crew leaders, foremen, superintendents, and/or project managers should assert their right to have counsel present before giving any testimony to OSHA. In other words, the supervisor should state their name, position and assert the right to counsel. This will give the individual an opportunity to discuss the alleged violations with management and counsel prior to being interviewed. It will also allow management and counsel to be present during the interviews. Generally, these interviews occur at counsel’s office or OSHA’s area office rather than the jobsite, thereby limiting exposure to additional potential violations.

With regard to crew member interviews, management and counsel for management cannot be present during non-supervisory employee interviews. However, if the employee requests that counsel be present for the interview, OSHA must allow counsel to be present. During the interviews, OSHA will ask a variety of questions regarding safety training and jobsite-specific acts or omissions. For example, common safety training questions include how to properly tie off, use personal protective equipment (PPE), properly install anchor points, properly tie off ladders, knowledge about hydration and water breaks, knowledge regarding risks associated with swing radius, inhalation of chemicals and/or silica, as well as other potential hazards.

The jobsite-specific questions will focus on the who, where, when, what and how. In particular, questions will be asked to employees regarding the training they received and commands they received on the date of the incident. For example, if employees are not properly tied off as required, the CSHO will ask whether employees were instructed to tie off on the date of the inspection, whether supervisory employees inspected the crew members during construction, and the reason(s) why employees were not tied off. OSHA often asks whether employees were not wearing fall protection because they were told to complete work at an accelerated pace or to meet certain schedule obligations. If an employee answers in the affirmative, it could be damaging to the employer.

While the testimony is being taken, the CSHO will be drafting a witness statement, which generally contains self-serving declarations for purposes of prosecuting the employer. No one is required to sign a witness statement. Both supervisory and non-supervisory employees can refuse to sign witness statements. The CSHO may take his/her own notes and use that as evidence or have the local area office issue a subpoena requiring that his/her testimony be taken under oath. This delay in obtaining testimony may be beneficial for the employer because it will allow the employee to have the opportunity to think about his/her answers and be in a better mindset for purposes of providing testimony. It also gives counsel and management an opportunity to speak with and prepare the employee for the interview if he or she wishes to do so. Obviously, regardless of when testimony is provided, all employees must always tell the truth.

OSHA relies heavily upon the witness statements during inspections to issue citations. Employees need to understand that interviews are voluntary and that they have the right to decline the interview outright. In the absence of a subpoena, an interviewee cannot be compelled to do anything during the voluntary interview. Additionally, an employee also has the right to refuse the recording of an interview, whether video or audio, and has the right to take a break from the interview at any time.

As always, nothing in this article is meant to suggest that any employer should not fully comply 100 percent with OSHA rules and standards. However, it is important to understand and assert your rights while an inspection is being performed to help limit exposure to OSHA citations.

About the author: Trent Cotney, CEO of Cotney Construction Law, is an advocate for the roofing industry and serves as General Counsel for FRSA, RT3, TARC, WSRCA and several other roofing associations. For more information, contact the author at 866-303-5868 or www.cotneycl.com.

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