If you see a drone flying over your construction site, it could be the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) checking in.

The organization recently started using drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to conduct worksite safety inspections, but some employers are wary that this change could bring more fines and challenges when disputing violations.

Early last year, OSHA issued a memorandum to its staff formalizing the use of drones for inspection purposes. One of the parameters of the memo is that when using drones, the employer must agree to their use.

The drones, according to an article published by EHS Today, an occupational safety and health magazine, have already completed nine safety inspections of facilities last year, including monitoring:

  • a building collapse;
  • an oil drilling rig fire;
  • a combustible dust blast;
  • a chemical plant explosion; and
  • a television tower accident.

So far, drones have been launched following hazardous workplace accidents where conditions were too dangerous to allow OSHA personnel onto the worksite. This year, OSHA is hoping to get even more employers behind the use of drones and to generalize the procedure for all workplaces as annual inspections continue.

How The Drone Program Works

Each region must choose a regional UAS program manager (UPM) to oversee all aspects of the program. The drones themselves are flown by a remote pilot in command (RPIC), an employee who has passed an FAA aeronautical knowledge test and obtained a remote pilot certificate with a UAS rating. Equipped with a camera that can record and take pictures, OSHA-operated drones must meet a number of requirements before and during their inspection flights, including:

  • completing a pre- and post-flight checklist of maintenance inspections;
  • receiving employers’ express consent ;
  • notifying the personnel before the drone inspection;
  • staying within visual line-of-sight of RPIC;
  • operating no higher than 400 feet above the ground (unless the structure is over 400 feet tall);
  • not exceeding speeds of more than 100 miles per hour;and
  • yielding to manned aircrafts.

The memo also states that drones are not allowed to operate over anyone not directly participating in the operation. Unless staff members are assigned to walk around with the RPIC and OSHA personnel conducting the inspection, staff must stay sheltered for protection against the possibility of malfunctioning or falling drones.

Why Employers Are Worried

Drones are booming in popularity. According to a USG Corporation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce report, 74 percent of construction companies admit to being on board with using drones in the next three years as a part of their business plan. However, employers supportive of advancing technology on the worksite may not be so eager to consent to OSHA drone inspections. In multiple sources addressing the new drone inspections, employers expressed the following fears and concerns:

  • more stringent inspection practices;
  • more citations for violations that the human eye would miss;
  • stricter policies regarding disputing or appealing violations found by drones;
  • inability to object to photos and videos taken of the worksite;
  • failure to immediately fix violations during safety inspection to avoid fines;
  • not knowing where the drone is focusing or being able to control the inspection; and
  • revelation of trade secrets.

The Debate Over Consent

One of the most talked about statements in the OSHA drone memo is the matter of employer consent and whether the act of denying it is a feasible option. EHS Todayreports employers are worried that by not consenting to OSHA drone inspections, they are essentially admitting fault, which could lead to the possibility of more thorough inspections of the premises that  employers may not be ready for.

Another major concern is for job sites where more than one company is present. Even though OSHA is obtaining permission from one employer, the consent policies do not address what happens if violations from another employer’s property are found during the drone inspection or if all employers must consent before drone inspections can commence.

Where Drones Can Help

Opposition aside, drones are proliferating in many industries and there are many safety benefits to using drones employers may not have considered:

  • Safety inspections help save lives:In a report released last year by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), the organization revealed that lack of enforcement agencies performing safety inspections was one of the main contributors to construction deaths in New York State. Findings show that OSHA inspections, in particular, experienced a decrease in the last twenty years, leaving thousands of dangerous worksites left unmonitored. Drones could easily help fill the gap in the number of on-site visits OSHA safety officers are physically able to complete each year, keeping a closer eye out for deadly safety hazards.
  • Some sites are too dangerous to monitor: Some worksites receive little-to-no safety inspections because their conditions are too hazardous for OSHA personnel to visit. Drones that fly over problem areas at these worksites can help employers improve areas of safety that may otherwise go undetected until fatalities and injuries occur. In addition, drones that fly over worksites after catastrophic accidents can help manage situations more safely and quickly by gaining an ariel perspective of the incident.
  • Drones can stop negligent employers: Negligent employers are typically very good at hiding their flaws and violations. When OSHA personnel physically comes to inspect these sites, they have multiple ways of controlling what they see and even when they visit. Drones can uncover serious safety violations that cause injuries and fatalities to workers on the job.

Drones Are The Future

OSHA is exploring the option of obtaining a Blanket Public COA from the FAA to fly drones nationwide. If this is granted, the agency’s policy requiring employer permission may be negated. It is in the best interest of employers to prepare for the change by taking steps including:

  • making a plan as to how to handle drone inspections on your site;
  • establishing who will accompany the OSHA drone crew around the site; and
  • educating employees on company rights.

If you or someone you love has suffered a serious occupational injury at the fault of someone else, contact our winning team today to explore your rights. Siler & Ingber has been fighting back for workers’ rights for over 20 years. Contact us at 1-877-LAW-4343 for a free consultation to seek justice for your work injury.