With the 2019 holiday shopping season kicking off in earnest this upcoming Black Friday, OSHA circulated reminders last week of some of its key resources and concerns for safety and health in retail stores, especially during the holiday rush. What can retailers expect from OSHA this holiday season, and how can you stay prepared to reduce the chance of enforcement?

Retailers are expecting more employees, more merchandise, and more customers this year. That’s great for business but always brings complications for maintaining workplace safety and health. The National Retail Federation (NRF) believes sales could grow by over 4%, with 165 million people shopping this season. It estimates that retailers will hire 10% more seasonal workers (590,000 employees) to handle the volume.

Last year’s holiday season meant more OSHA inspections and higher penalties

We know you’re busy these days. What about OSHA? Over the most recent 12 months, in all of the retail industry, OSHA conducted 624 inspections, Issued 1,732 violations, and assessed $8,226,538 in penalties. This does not even include the growing warehouse distribution and transportation network. The warehousing industry alone adds 653 more violations and $2.3 million more in penalties over the last 12 months.

How about during the holiday season, in particular? Let’s look at one prominent slice of the retail market: department stores. This includes everyone from traditional department stores in malls to supercenters and other big box stores (both general merchandise and specialty). Last year’s holiday season (Q4) brought a slight uptick in OSHA inspections overall at department stores. However, not all inspections were up. Interestingly, inspections due to accidents and referrals from other agencies (such as the local fire department) were less common in Q4 (just 20% of the year’s accident inspections and 23% of the year’s referral inspections).

On the other hand, complaint inspections were the major driver of OSHA visits to retail stores during the holidays. Complaints caused more than half of the department store OSHA inspections during the holidays last year. The complaint inspections in Q4 were almost a third of the entire year’s complaint inspections in these stores. Of course, in practice, almost anyone – from a seasonal employee to a concerned or irate customer – can call in or electronically submit a complaint. With so much more merchandise and people moving through retail properties, not to mention inventory challenges and employee turnover, it’s no surprise that complaints would be higher.

OSHA inspections during the holiday season were more likely to result in citations and higher penalties. All of the inspections opened by OSHA during 2018 in department stores ultimately resulted in 258 violations (whether the citations were actually issued in 2018 or during the following year). About 28% of the year’s inspections – slightly more than a quarter – occurred in the fourth quarter last year. Yet, these holiday season inspections packed more punch that inspections during the rest of the year. Among all of the inspections OSHA opened in department stores in 2018, the Q4 OSHA department store visits accounted for almost a third of the violations and 41% of the penalties.

OSHA inspections and citations in department stores, 2018

All year 2018 Q4 2018 % in Q4
Total inspections 216 61 28%
Accidents 10 2 20%
Referrals 40 9 23%
Complaints 120 38 32%
Violations 258 80 31%
Penalties $1,968,455 $805,000 41%

So, OSHA may not be much more likely to visit your stores during the holiday season than at other times of the year. But, if they do, it’s more likely that a complaint will be the reason they show up. And when they do visit, it’s more likely to hurt – with more citations and higher penalties. The stakes are higher.

What can you do at this point to avoid trouble this season?

The holiday rush can be an overwhelming blur of activity in retail, requiring all hands on deck. Armies of new, temporary employees need training and supervision not only to do their new jobs but also to do them safely. Veteran employees who may know what to do normally may have expanded or shifting roles, too. Normal handling and stocking procedures may change as stores open up overflow inventory storage areas. Even where team members are assigned to keep inventory organized and aisles clear, they can instantly be diverted by customers needing assistance.

With the season underway, now is the time to execute and maintain your company’s safety policies and plans. Staying on top of safety during these busy days often means:

  • Using team pre-shift team huddles to remind staff to look out for safety issues.
  • Reminding your teams to report issues to your safety hotline/web site. Once reported, investigate and fix it. In the case of legitimate safety concerns, team members may not feel the need to call OSHA if they have a way to report internally and have faith that you’ll address their concerns.
  • On a daily or twice-daily basis, having a manager do a quick safety walk-through and assign someone to address issues discovered.
  • Using central CCTV systems to monitor inventory, backroom, and emergency exit conditions.
  • In case OSHA shows up, notifying the company safety department for maximum support.

For a helpful quick summary, feel free to download and share our one-page store manager’s cheat sheet with your team!

Look out for the issues OSHA will care most about

As you walk around, put yourself in the shoes of an OSHA compliance officer. What issues would be most important to you? It’s no secret. OSHA’s enforcement data and its recently updated retail holiday page provide a great road map. OSHA’s web site is now highlighting 11 agency pamphlets and training tools that the agency hopes will help retailers stay on top of compliance. Most of these are not new materials. The updated web page is simply OSHA’s attempt to put them all in one place for convenience. They include:

These resources cover some of the most significant issues retailers will face this season, but there are some gaps. The most common and costly issues tend to involve symptoms of the holiday rush, especially too much inventory being squeezed into places where it doesn’t fit: on the sales floor, in exit routes, falling into aisles, in unstable stacks of boxes , in back rooms, and blocking access to electrical panels. In warehouses, home centers, and supercenters, you can add forklift safetymachine guarding, and lockout/tagout to the list. The chart below shows the top compliance challenges – ranked by highest penalties – for all retailers In the last 12 months. Use it as a checklist – are your stores and warehouses in good shape on these issues?

Top OSHA standards cited in retail industry in last 12 months

Standard   Issue   Penalties  
1910.37  Blocked exit routes $1,838,650
1910.176  Materials handling/storage, stacks $1,091,744
1910.212  Machine guarding $531,513
1910.178  Forklifts/industrial trucks $493,156
1910.303  Electrical equipment install/blocked $457,122
1910.22  Orderly work/storage areas $395,611
1910.1200  Hazard communication $236,324
1904.39  Reporting serious injuries $231,918
1910.305  Exposed live electrical parts $206,110
1910.157  Portable fire extinguishers $197,260
1910.134  Respiratory protection $87,469
1910.147  Lockout/tagout $62,388

Need more resources?

Knowing what to look for and prioritize is half the battle. It helps you stay a step ahead of any problems and fix the issues OSHA would be most likely to cite if it inspects. To go even deeper, here are two more resources with strategies for minimizing OSHA liability in retail:

  • Check out our free webinarNot a Hard Sell: Retailer Strategies to Reduce OSHA Liability (click “view recording” from the main page).
  • Schedule training for your team. It’s never too soon to prepare for next year. We’re currently booking customized in-house training for 2020. Please contact me to get on the calendar with training for your team.

Of course, if you have enforcement challenges or questions, please contact your Husch Blackwell attorney or me, and we’d be glad to assist.