AKRON-The mere mention of ``OSHA'' often sends chills up the backs of business owners. So naturally, many tire dealers are rather reluctant to invite the regulatory agency into their shops for a consultation. Yet the Occupational Safety & Health Administration is asking businesses to do just that-through a program run at the state level in which consultants advise businesses on existing safety hazards, without the ramifications of costly fines and penalties that would accompany a normal OSHA inspection.
The free, federally-funded consulting service has been in operation since OSHA was created in the 1970s, yet many businesses are unaware of the service-or are too wary to check into it.
However, Tom Harris, owner of Harris Tire in Lynchburg, Va., is acting as a self-described ``guinea pig'' for the Virginia Tire & Automotive Service Dealers Association to ``test'' the state Department of Labor consulting program. He recently discovered the service and has requested a visit from an OSHA consultant.
Mr. Harris and the association plan to keep a diary of the process and then decide whether to recommend the service to other members. ``They're waiting for me'' to complete the process, Mr. Harris said.
It may be a long wait. Mr. Harris requested a consultation for his retail store and warehouse back in August, but the consultation office has a backlog of 200 cases and the dealership may not receive a visit until the end of the year.
Mr. Harris said he was prompted to try the consulting service after a smaller Lynchburg tire dealership reportedly fired an employee and was then ``turned in'' to OSHA. OSHA reportedly found violations at the site and fined the dealership.
Mr. Harris said such a situation could happen to him-or any business-so he decided to try the less costly alternative and have the consulting arm of government inspect his premises.
The program ``can't fine you for (non-compliance) and they can't report me (to the enforcement division),'' he said.
Mr. Harris admitted he has some things on his premises that are not in compliance with OSHA regulations. But he said he plans to correct those items after the consultation. ``It's going to cost me some money,'' he said, but far less than a fine.
Craig Schoenthaler of The Tred Shed in Pittsburg, Calif., highly recommends the consulting service. About two years ago he called CalOSHA for a consultation of his retail and automotive service outlet. The visit and the subsequent paperwork needed to prove items were brought into compliance required a fair amount of his time, Mr. Schoenthaler said. ``It was kind of a hassle,'' he said but ``a necessary evil'' compared with an inspection from the enforcement arm of OSHA.
Mr. Schoenthaler said until two years ago, he was unfamiliar with the consulting side of OSHA. But he figured the consultation visit was a way to protect his business from a surprise inspection. ``I try to run a clean, nice shop. But I don't know all the (OSHA) rules,'' he said.
After his positive experience with the OSHA program, Mr. Schoenthaler said he encouraged fellow tire dealers to call for a visit. He added that a lot of dealers don't realize such a service exists.
The OSHA consultation service is geared for companies with fewer than 500 employees. The free service is specifically structured for small firms based on the belief that larger companies can afford to hire consultants or even have an in-house safety director, according to a federal OSHA spokeswoman.
The consulting program is offered at the state level, usually through a department of labor, and is funded 90 percent by the federal government and the remainder by the state.
The consultants do not share information on a client with the enforcement arm of OSHA-unless the client refuses to fix serious safety violations.
Despite its long existence, the consulting program faces fear and obscurity among small businesses.
Bob Yocom, a safety consultant with the Ohio Department of Industrial Relations, surmised that 80 percent of the small businesses in his state are unfamiliar with the OSHA consulting program. The department tries to get the word out by soliciting prospective clients over the phone or with personal visits.
And in spite of the running joke-``I'm with the government and I'm here to help you''-Mr. Yocom said the consulting program is here to help and ``that's what we emphasize to people.''
On an annual basis, the department's 11-member staff conducts about 1,000 visits, giving priority to businesses with greater potential safety hazards, such as stamping plants and factories, compared with car and tire dealerships.
Yet, in Ohio, tire dealers have ``a penchant for staying away from OSHA,'' according to Bill Floyd, executive director of the Ohio Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association. So the trade group has called on the services of a private consulting firm to address members' OSHA concerns.
There appears to be a growing number of private firms offering OSHA consulting services, but Ohio IDR's Mr. Yocom doesn't think these private firms will herald the demise of the state-run program.
``We're primarily aimed at the small guy who can't afford $1,000 per day (for a private consulting service). There is definitely a niche for us,'' Mr. Yocom said.
OSHA regulations and enforcement is probably one of the greatest concerns of tire dealers. The National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association reported it ``continually'' receives calls from members with questions and concerns about OSHA regulations-an estimated 1,000 OSHA queries a year.
The NTDRA government affairs office offers a toll-free hotline for questions and sends inquiring members pamphlets, brochures and other appropriate information.
``It's a major membership service,'' said C.D. ``Tony'' Hylton, NTDRA's director of communication services. ``We get as many questions about OSHA as (all) other government affairs issues (combined),'' he said. And the calls have increased noticeably in the last 18 months, he added.
``We find in many parts of the country that OSHA, both federal and state, are active in the regulatory area. This is causing considerable concern among our members,'' Mr. Hylton said.
In response to dealers' concerns in its state, the Louisiana Independent Tire Dealers Association recently hosted a series of regional meetings about preparing for OSHA inspections.
The LITDA meeting series ``was the finest thing we've ever done for our members,'' said Executive Director Norm Rhea, noting the meetings drew a total of 200 people, including 20 non-member dealers.
Taking a cue from the high interest on the subject, Mr. Rhea has decided to establish himself as a resident OSHA expert for LITDA members. From his years of experience in the tire business, Mr. Rhea said he will explain, from a ``common sense'' standpoint, what dealerships need to be aware of during an OSHA inspection. He will offer members a free inspection of their premises to point out potential OSHA violations. He expects to start offering his services by the end of the year.