OSHA is Using Drones during Inspections!!!

Click here for Spanish.

Have you heard the latest news? OSHA is now using drones to conduct safety inspections!

Okay, now that we have the sensationalizing out of the way, let’s talk about what this really means. Or more importantly, what it doesn’t mean. Well, maybe it is a little of both.

First and foremost, it is important to understand that there are certain protocols that have been set in place on how an OSHA Inspection occurs.

Click here for the factsheet covering Inspections in more detail. But the short version is this:

  • An OSHA Compliance Officer will arrive, present his/her credentials, and indicate why they are there.
  • The Opening Conference will be conducted to discuss the reasons for the inspection, and to gather the employer representatives that need to be present.
  • The Walk-around, the part of the inspection that feels like an inspection, is the conducted. During the Walk-around the OSHA Compliance Officer will talk to a reasonable representation of the workers (in private) to gather information. The Compliance Officer will also take pictures, measurements, and notes based on their findings.
  • The Closing Conference is the final step of the inspection. During the Closing Conference the Compliance Officer will discuss the findings and generally provide some feedback on what will likely be presented and recommended for a citation.

After the Inspection is completed the Compliance Officer will present the information to the Area Director, with the recommendations for citations and penalties, and the Area Director will make the final determination on what actions to take (or not take). If you will be getting a citation it will be sent to you in some official manner within 180 days (6 months) of the inspection.

Key Points

Some of the key points that you need to understand, because they become very important once we start discussing the drone part of this article.

Number one! OSHA is permitted to gather information (i.e. take pictures, videos, notes, etc.) from any place that they are legally permitted to be. So, if you see them staked out across the street in a parking lot with binoculars, a video camera, or even a drone…well, they have a right to be there and they have a right to collect that evidence in that manner.

Number two! The inspection does not begin until they have conducted the Opening Conference with the appropriate people. The worker in the trenches is NOT the appropriate person. They must contact a person in some sort of supervisory capacity. That person is generally the General Contractor’s Superintendent. So, if you are a Subcontractor reading this, you will be notified as appropriate.

What about the drones?

Can OSHA fly above your project with a drone and collect evidence without stopping in and saying hello? Ummmm, maybe? Legally, probably so, because the airspace isn’t technically yours in most cases. There are certain situations (airports, military bases, … some sort of secret installation) where it may be protected, but most places aren’t. However, there are other restrictions that could come into play if it came right down to it, but that is WAY beyond my scope of knowledge.

Am I concerned about the drones?

Nope! Not at all! And here is why.

The main reason is Logic. Not every Compliance Officer has a drone. They are expensive to own. They require specific licensing and training to operate in an official capacity. And at this point I honestly just think the waters are too murky for the average Compliance Officer to base their case purely on the findings of a drone. OSHA is under-staffed, and under-funded. They are not going to resort to some high-tech gadget for the common citation. It is just too risky and it takes too much time and money to make sense.

In my long career, the number of inspections that have occurred based on a drive-by number exactly 5. And of those, only 1 actually had pictures taken prior to entering the project. Of the others, three resulted in a either a fax (remember those?) or a phone call asking for my email that said “Hey, we saw such and such, please respond to this officially, letting me know it was investigated and taken care of.” The other one resulted in an immediate pull-in to gather the project team to go walk the site.

But they already use them!

Yep, they do. And in most of the cases it has been to investigate an incident so they can gather information from areas that are otherwise unsafe to enter.

And, I will not be surprised to see them become more of a common tool during the course of a normal inspection. There are some pretty nifty drones out there with cameras and speakers and such. So, where I can see them being used, intelligently, would be to fly them up to talk to the tower crane operator or to inspect a crane, rather than having the operator climb down, or the inspector climb up. Another time might be to just gather an overall scope of a project… is work being performed on the roof? If not, why bother to go up there.

In Conclusion

Drones are out there. They are amazing tools that can be used for inspections, even by OSHA. They are worth looking into to see if they can help with your own processes. And it will definitely be interesting to see where OSHA takes their stance on the use of drones in the coming months.

But, in my opinion, you don’t have to worry about “big-brother in the sky” looking at you or your project. Not yet, anyway.

Beside, if you are managing your project and conducting your activities safely, then you have nothing to be concerned with anyway.

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