OSHA May Use Drones for Inspection

According to a memo that Bloomberg uncovered using the Freedom of Information Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is considering taking to the air with camera-equipped drones as a way to gather more information on some of its safety inspections. However, there are some concerns about the practice.

The memo states OSHA would use drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), to collect evidence during inspections. The memo specifies the areas these UAS would investigate would include inaccessible or hazardous locations.

OSHA cites justification in two legal frameworks under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules. Specifically, OSHA could qualify as a public aircraft operator or civil aircraft operator. The memo adds that, until OSHA determines which kind of operator it plans to become, interim guidance will be available for workplace inspections involving UAS, which is outlined in the memo.

The memo notes that, "OSHA will obtain express consent from the employer prior to using UAS on any inspection. To ensure the safety and cooperation of individuals that may be affected by the aerial inspection, personnel on-site must be notified of the aerial inspection prior to launching a UAS."

According to the memo, OSHA will determine if the use of a drone for inspection is appropriate and will take responsibility of operating the equipment. OSHA representatives will also be responsible for filing reports with the area director and the UAS program manager within one business day of the flight. The flight report will detail the mission, relevant information about the drone's operation and procedures, as well as a brief description of the information gathered during the flight.

Currently, there is some concern over this memo, such as how the rights of employers to protest this scope of inspection will evolve. Another concern is how this new practice will impact multi-employer worksites, such as how a general contractor's authorization for OSHA to use drones will affect the rights of subcontractors also working on that site.

"Drones raise some interesting privacy concerns, especially on multi-employer jobsites," said Tom O'Connor, ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR's Safety columnist. "It is in the best interest of the employer to try to limit OSHA's use of drones strictly to areas identified in a complaint."

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