What You Need to Know About OSHA’s Drone Inspections

It seems like every week people find new innovative ways to use drones. Many of these ideas are transforming safety and have the potential to save many lives. Just to name a few, drones have been used to deliver medications in developing countries, drop life preservers to swimmers stranded in rough waters and have even been transformed into mini ambulances with defibrillators that can be used in the event of a heart attack. Drones can arrive on scene in a timely manner and reach places that are difficult, if not dangerous, for people to access. Now OSHA has also adopted this technology to improve workplace safety.

OSHA Takes Flight

In May 2018, OSHA issued a memorandum to announce the use of unmanned aircraft systems, more commonly known as drones, to assist in worksite inspections and provide technical assistance and training. These drones can be used to conduct safety inspections of areas that are unsafe or difficult to reach, creating a more comprehensive report of the site conditions. So far, they have been used to investigate an oil drilling rig fire, a building collapse, a combustible dust blast, an accident on a television tower and a chemical plant explosion.

What should you be concerned about?

This technology is very useful for investigating these types of dangerous incidents, but it also poses a concern for employers who feel their Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure may be violated. A big issue with this policy is how OSHA’s “plain view” doctrine will come into play in the context of aerial inspections. During a typical inspection, if an OSHA inspector sees a violative condition from the scope of their inspection, even if the condition is outside of that scope, they have the right to investigate. With drones, the scope of what’s in “plain sight” is significantly larger, increasing the regulatory exposure to employers. It is important to note that employers do not have to allow access to the drone portion of any inspection. Having said that, it may be better to let the inspector conduct the inevitable safety inspection to avoid a hostile relationship. By denying the drone inspection, OSHA will have to obtain a search warrant which takes up everyone’s time and may lead them to believe you have something to hide. This could also cause the inspector to be harsher in their inspection. The permission policy is even further complicated when there is a multi-employer work site. It is unclear how one employer’s authorization affects the others’ rights on the job site.

Preparing for these inspections

These aerial inspections are likely to become more prevalent in the future. Ensuring your company is prepared for these changes is essential to keeping up with the times.

  • Inform and educate employees of this regulation and ensure everyone knows their rights.
  • Designate appropriate employees to accompany the inspection team.
  • Identify areas that could be subject to an aerial inspection.
  • Participate in the flight planning and don’t allow drones over the work site if there is disagreement with the flight plan or if a drone could endanger current operations.
  • Make sure all site-specific hazards, safety precautions and the responsible party are written into the site contracts.

Technology-driven process changes are always a bit of a balancing act between regulators and citizens, but on balance, technology continues to improve most aspects of modern life at home and in the workplace. Drone technology has the potential to greatly improve workplace safety by identifying hazards before they become disasters, and we should all be able to get behind that mission.

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By Leah Carson

July 17, 2019

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