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  Calling on OSHA for Information and Help
OSHA's toll-free number enables the agency to provide
the public immediate access to a central source of information about workplace safety and health.

by Donna Miles
(800) 321-OSHA
Q: We just treated a patient with an infectious disease in our dental clinic. How long do we have to quarantine the room before using it for other patients?

Q: I'm starting up a new company in Southern Ohio. What do I need to know to be sure I'm in compliance
with OSHA standards?

Q: My company needs to train a hearing-impaired employee about bloodborne pathogens in the workplace. What resources are available?

Q: How can I get information about respirators for work?

Q: Where can I get a copy of the OSHA poster?

Until last year, these and thousands of other questions from the public flooded OSHA's area offices 24 hours a day, seven days a week—many of them forwarded from OSHA's toll-free telephone system. Area office staffers took the calls around the clock, responding not only to emergency calls about workplace fatalities or imminent danger situations, but also taking orders for OSHA publications and directing callers to the agency website for information.

Area office directors and assistant directors frequently got calls in the middle of the night for non-emergency situations that could easily have waited until the next business day. James Borders, OSHA's Jacksonville Area Office director, remembers getting a call in the wee hours of the morning from someone complaining that she had found a cockroach in her Daytona Beach hotel room—and that OSHA needed to do something about it right away. "We'd sometimes get calls that were completely out of our jurisdiction, or that just couldn't be classified as emergencies that needed immediate attention," he said.

That was before OSHA began upgrading its toll-free telephone number in 2000 to make it more responsive to callers and less burdensome to OSHA's field staff.

The number, (800) 321-OSHA, was established in 1991, with the agency's Salt Lake Technical Center taking over the operation two years later. The center offered a level of service the agency had never been able to provide. For the first time, callers didn't have to flip through telephone directories or call directory assistance to figure out how to contact an OSHA office. By dialing a toll-free number, they had immediate access to an automated system that transferred their call exactly where it needed to go. The best thing, Borders said, is that emergency calls didn't sit overnight, waiting for a response.

Although the system helped make OSHA more accessible to the public, it did little to ease the heavy caller burden faced by area offices. Compliance officers found themselves inundated with calls—spending much of their time taking orders for OSHA posters or transferring calls unrelated to workplace safety and health to other agencies. John Hermanson, the 800 number coordinator for the Chicago Regional Office, said this detracted from the time they could devote to their enforcement and compliance assistance work.

That's all changed, thanks to an overhaul of the call center operations in early 2002, accomplished with technical assistance from the Salt Lake Technical Center. Today, the OSHA call center offers live customer service assistance and a universal access point to all OSHA's programs, services, and staff, Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Spanish-speaking operators are now available during business hours, but the center also has a contract with an interpretation service that can assist callers in more than 150 other languages within 20 seconds of receiving a call.

customer service representative
Customer service representatives at OSHA's call center assist callers to the agency's toll-free telephone system.
The call center staff monitors all after-hours and weekend calls as well. A supervisor verifies all emergency calls before referring them to an area office director. When contacting an area office director regarding an emergency after-hours call, the call center staff plays a recording of the call, then follows it up by faxing a full transcript of the message to the area office. Operators transcribe all non-emergency calls and fax the content to the appropriate office for response the next business day.

In addition to forwarding calls to the appropriate area offices and screening after-hours calls, the call center now responds to as many calls as possible directly and forwards only those that absolutely require it.

For example, callers requesting an OSHA publication are transferred automatically to the OSHA Publications Office. Callers wanting specific workplace safety and health information are transferred to a customer service representative at the call center. These operators, like Janet Grant, who has worked at the center for the past year, listen to what the caller asks and respond appropriately, using a sophisticated matrix of more than 200 keywords and prepared scripts.

Steve Deitz, program manager for Datatrac, the contractor that operates the call center for the Department of Labor in Chantilly, Va., said this system ensures that callers "consistently get consistent answers, with the same professional level of attention and the same responses to their questions or concerns."

Depending on the callers' needs, operators suggest OSHA publications that may provide the needed information, help them navigate the OSHA website to find it, or, if a call is not OSHA-related, direct callers to the appropriate agency.

Calls about a specific compliance issue—be it air quality, chemicals, personal protective equipment, or another topic—get transferred to the OSHA Compliance Guidance Group in Germantown, Md. (See "OSHA's Compliance Helpline," below)

Only calls that require area office involvement get transferred to area offices.

Lloyd "Bo" Black, 800 number coordinator for the Atlanta Regional Office, which receives more calls through the system than any other OSHA region, said the new system dramatically reduces calls received. "Supervisors in the office used to get inundated with calls," he said. "Now there's someone to screen the calls and respond to many of them without having to transfer them to us. It's a real timesaver that provides excellent customer service."

"It's made a world of difference for us at the area offices," added Borders. Hermanson couldn't agree more. "This system helps us tremendously because it gives our compliance officers more time to devote to the type of work they are uniquely qualified to do to make a significant impact on the safety and health of America's workforce," he said.

While shifting a heavy burden from area office staffs, Pat Adamik, OSHA's director of Administrative Services, said the call center also helps OSHA provide more efficient customer service to callers.

Callers receive fast, courteous responses. Few calls exceed three minutes. "We don't want callers to have to spend a lot of time on the phone to get the information they need," explained Kerry Grosick, project manager at the call center.

"One thing that helps cut down on the length of the call," she said, "is that we don't ask the caller too many questions. A lot of our callers, especially people who call after [business] hours, are concerned about anonymity, and we're respectful of that concern." For this reason, operators ask for the caller's zip code to determine which area office has responsibility, but no other personal identifying information.

In addition, whenever they need to transfer a call to another office, operators strive to make what they call a "warm transfer." "Our goal is to reach someone at the other end of the line before completing the transfer," Grosick said. "We explain the nature of the call so the caller doesn't have to repeat all the specifics." This also ensures that callers don't get disconnected during a call transfer, and whenever possible, that they don't end up talking to an answering machine.

Dee Cantu, 800 number coordinator for OSHA's Kansas City Regional Office, said that a relatively new feature of the system—the availability of Spanish-speaking operators during business hours and almost instant access to translators for callers who speak other languages—"is a great addition that widens our access to many more employees and employers." Currently, only about 2 percent of calls to the center come from Spanish speakers, but OSHA hopes to increase awareness of the toll-free number within the Hispanic community.

As OSHA promotes the toll-free number and improves the system, calls to the center continue to increase. During 2002, the center received almost 140,000 calls.

customer service representative
Customer service representatives at the call center offer prompt, professional assistance, helping alleviate the burden on OSHA's area offices.
Customer service representatives at the center say they get a sense of satisfaction responding to these callers' needs. "You feel that you are actually helping people, referring them to the information they need or the office they need to talk to when they have a question on concern," said Grant. "The system gives a very comforting feeling to the public that their voice is being heard, regardless of the hour," agreed Roy Dunn, who works nights and weekends, when most workplace fatalities get reported. "A lot of time and effort and determination has gone into their project, and we're always looking for ways to improve."

Within OSHA, the system has a strong base of supporters. "The biggest value is that it's enabled us to come close to providing 24 hour customer service," summarized Cantu. "Because [call center] representatives monitor the calls no matter what time of day or night, the service enables OSHA to provide something that was simply not available before the service—to always be there when the public needs us." JSHQ

OSHA's Compliance Helpline
OSHA frequently gets calls from employers, employees, professionals, labor and industry representatives, and the general public requesting information about OSHA compliance requirements, or interpretations of those requirements. The call center staff transfers these to OSHA's Compliance Guidance Group, which is staffed with contract safety and health experts specifically trained to deal with the agency's compliance issues.

The staff answers callers' questions using existing OSHA documents such as standards, directives, preambles, interpretation letters, and publications.

"Helpline" employees work closely with OSHA's Enforcement Programs staff to respond to some 100 calls for technical information or assistance every day in a courteous, timely manner. They provide information about a wide range of topics: safety and health standards, recordkeeping procedures, enforcement issues, OSHA's cooperative programs, and eTools, among them.

Jou Hwang, president of the contract company, said the center has handled more than 23,500 public inquiries since January 2002. The staff logs each call into a database so OSHA can track public inquires and use the information to guide future compliance assistance efforts.

In addition to handling public inquires over the phone, the helpline also responds to queries made through OSHA's public web-based email system. Since the e-correspondence system was created in October 2001, the staff has processed more than 6,100 emails.