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It’s neither a bird nor a plane — OSHA is now using drones to improve inspections

Posted on Tuesday, February 12, 2019 in News / Announcements

Posted By:
Jan Schawe - jschawe@roeding.com

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No…it’s an Occupational Safety and Health Administration drone? What? That’s right, folks, OSHA is in the midst of a technological revolution and has moved into the 21st century and is now using Unmanned Aircraft Systems to improve safety inspections.

Whether these drones are called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Miniature Pilotless Aircraft or Flying Mini Robots, drones are rapidly growing in popularity worldwide. The technology is still in the infancy stage in terms of how they are being adopted and their usage, but drones are now being used in a variety of different industries — agriculture, architecture, construction, public safety, emergency services, deliveries, engineering, media, real estate, utilities, entertainment, insurance, etc.

According to an article in droneusainc.com drones are being employed more and more frequently in the commercial sector. In fact, employers in all 50 states use drones for more than 40 types of applications. Aerial photography is by far the most common role for drones, where they save time and money.

The needs and opportunities are endless, and in my profession of risk management and safety, drones will play a significant role in keeping employees and the public safe.

As I try to visualize OSHA in a George Jetson world in the future, I can imagine a world where a construction worker on a skyscraper could reach out to OSHA from an app on his wrist phone to call in a safety complaint that he or she is exposed to while working on a job. Then within minutes, OSHA would dispatch a drone to his exact GPS coordinates to visually inspect and record those safety hazards and then email the general contractor their violations and fines without even setting foot on the job site.

Or I see a big brother world where construction contractors and subcontractors must notify OSHA of every project that they will be working on, on any given day. Where OSHA would then randomly dispatch hundreds of drones every day to ensure and inspect that scaffolds are erected correctly, hardhats are being worn, personal fall arrest systems are being worn, trenches are protected with trench boxes, GFCI are being used correctly, etc.

The number of construction-related deaths in 2018 has yet to be finalized, but in 2017 there were 991 construction industry-related fatalities out of the total 4,693 workplace deaths (21 percent); and with the recent economic growth, I anticipate that number will grow higher once 2018 fatality numbers are released.

Consequently, OSHA continues to concentrate a vast majority of their time to the construction industry as it represents 60 percent of all their annual inspections. As a result, OSHA has taken note and is now employing drone technology to help inspect construction sites — but only if the employer consents.

According to a recent article in www.ehstoday.com, in 2018 OSHA reportedly used drones with cameras to conduct at least nine inspections of employer facilities after obtaining permission from the companies’ management. The drones were most frequently deployed following accidents at worksites that were considered too dangerous for OSHA inspectors to enter, including oil drilling rig fire, a building collapse, a combustible dust blast, an accident on a television tower and a chemical plant explosion.

Early in 2018, OSHA issued a memo to its staff formalizing its use of drones for inspection activities, ordering each of the agency’s 10 regions to designate a staff member as an unmanned aircraft program manager to oversee training requirements and evaluate reports submitted by drone teams.

The memo sets forth the parameters OSHA must follow when using drones, including the fact that the employer must agree to their use. It also reveals that OSHA is exploring the option of obtaining a Blanket Public Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate drones nationwide.

Because employers must grant the agency permission for it to conduct the flyovers of their facilities, their expanding use puts employers in an uncomfortable position, some attorneys note, observing that OSHA’s use of drones has the potential to expand its violation-finding capabilities during any inspection.

While most inspections can and should be limited in scope, the fact remains that OSHA can and will cite employers for violations that are in plain sight while conducting an inspection.

Working on buildings, towers, and other tall structures create the most dangerous conditions an employee can have, including the OSHA inspectors. Roofs are the most difficult and dangerous part of a building for inspectors to access.

This type of work regularly requires inspectors to climb on ladders or scaffolding that is not always placed on safe and level ground. Often times, the roof of the structure itself may be in poor condition, leading to other hazards from loose tiles and exposed skylights. Sudden gusts of wind or other poor weather can increase the likelihood of an accident. The roof may even collapse from the weight of an inspector if it is badly damaged or poorly maintained. All of this can be avoided with the use of a drone, making inspections much safer.

This is where drones are the most beneficial; they have the ability to replace workers in many of the difficult-to-reach places that require inspection and maintenance which put workers at risk. Because of that fact, drones will become a much-needed tool you will soon find in every construction safety manager’s toolbox in the very near future.

Despite some of these limitations and concerns listed above, don’t expect OSHA to back away from their use. Drones are quickly growing in value and provide OSHA inspectors a quick comprehensive view of a facility, expanding the areas that can be easily viewed by an inspector, and significantly reducing the amount of time required to conduct such an inspection, making them more efficient and safer for the inspectors.

Federal OSHA is a small agency. With all the state partners, they only have approximately 2,100 inspectors responsible for the health and safety of 130 million workers, employed at more than eight million worksites around the nation — which translates to about one compliance officer for every 59,000 workers.

OSHA needs to continue to find ways to become more efficient and continue to drive down the fatality rate in this country. If you have an aversion to drones as a foreman or contractor, you can try to deny the use of drones. But OSHA will then produce a search warrant, which then opens the doors for a hostile relationship with OSHA, which will not play well for you in the end, trust me.

Be Safe, My Friends