The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) of 1970 ensures workplace safety and health for workers across the United States. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforces the OSH Act and imposes penalties in case of noncompliance with the regulations. OSHA’s authority covers over 130 million workers across 8 million worksites.
OSHA conducts workplace inspections to ensure compliance with the OSHA standards, covering the entire workplace or a few specific operations. If an inspection turns up any violations, OSHA can impose penalties or citations of as much as $70,000 for a single safety violation. Issues found during OSHA inspections can also have other consequences as customers, insurers and others often scrutinize a company’s OSHA records before doing business.
In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about OSHA inspections — including what triggers them, how to prepare for one, and what to do during the inspection.
When Can OSHA Inspections Happen?
OSHA doesn’t have the staff or resources to inspect all the workplaces (over 8 million) across the country. So, they have a system of priorities based on a “worst first” approach. For low-priority concerns and issues, OSHA will conduct a phone inquiry followed by a written follow-up, where everything can be resolved in writing.
For issues that require on-site inspections, OSHA’s order of priorities from highest to lowest is as follows:
- Imminent danger situations: Any conditions that could cause death or serious physical harm are of the highest priority and result in inspection within 24 hours. Corrective action will also be expected immediately.
- Severe injuries and illnesses: All work-related fatalities should be reported to the local OSHA office within 8 hours, and hospitalizations, amputations, or loss of an eye should be reported within 24 hours. Incidents that cause fatalities or serious worker injuries will lead to an OSHA inspection to gauge whether the accident was the employer’s fault.
- Employee complaints: Employees can submit a complaint to the OSHA area office about any hazard in the workplace. If the hazard is not serious, the issue may be resolved in writing; if the unsafe working condition could cause serious injury, an on-site inspection may be conducted.
- Referrals: If an inspector from another federal, state, or local agency (e.g., the Environmental Protection Agency); the media; or another such individual or organization notices a safety hazard requiring inspection, they can notify OSHA. These referrals will receive consideration for an inspection.
- Programmed inspections: OSHA conducts random inspections in high-hazard industries and occupations and where employees may be exposed to harmful chemicals or substances. These industries are selected based on factors including higher-than-normal incident rates, citation history, exposure to hazardous materials, etc.
- Follow-up inspections: After an OSHA inspection, you can expect an OSHA compliance officer to return to your worksite to ensure the abatement of violations cited during the previous inspection.
OSHA rarely gives advance notice of an inspection to employers. In cases where employers are informed, such notice will be less than 24 hours and must be given to management as well as the workers’ union and/or the safety committee. The special circumstances under which OSHA inspectors are allowed to give advance notice include:
- Imminent danger, where OSHA believes that management can fix the issue faster with notice
- If management or employee representatives are unlikely to be on-site without such notice
- If the inspection must be after business hours or requires special preparation
- If the OSHA area director thinks that a notice would help produce a more thorough or effective result (e.g., in a fatality investigation, since the preliminary findings of any internal investigation already underway could be presented to the OSHA inspector and witnesses could also share their accounts)
Alerting an employer in circumstances other than the four mentioned above, or without proper authorization, is a crime and can result in a fine and possibly even a jail sentence.
Preparing for an OSHA Inspection
While OSHA rarely gives advance notice of their inspections, you can still take steps to prepare for one. This can increase the likelihood of an inspection going smoothly and, if done well, also reduce the chance of any citations.
Of course, the best way to avoid penalties from an OSHA inspection is to ensure that there is no cause for such an inspection in the first place. You can do this by establishing an effective safety training program, performing periodic internal safety audits, and having safety procedures in place for all operations. Another good way to reduce the likelihood of OSHA inspections is to encourage your employees to bring their concerns to the company’s management and make sure any concerns are addressed quickly and effectively.
However, sometimes accidents may happen, or hazards may go unnoticed. It’s a good idea to always be prepared for an OSHA inspection in case such a situation occurs. Here’s how:
1. Keep Good Records
OSHA regulations require that employers with 10 or more full-time employees keep a yearly record of all workplace injuries and illnesses (the Log of Injuries and Illnesses, or OSHA Form 300). Other recordkeeping requirements include:
- A written hazard communication program
- Emergency action procedures
- Exposure and medical records
- Material safety data sheets
- A list of toxic chemicals on-site
- Personal protective equipment locations and uses
- Employee training records
- Records of fire and electrical safety training
- A record of employee complaints, along with a report on how each complaint was addressed
- Internal and third-party audit reports
- Previous inspection records with an accounting of any corrective actions taken
Keeping all these documents and any other records applicable to your organization handy is always useful in case of an inspection. These documents should only be shown to the OSHA compliance officer if they specifically request them.
2. Designate an Employee Representative
The law states that an employee representative, typically selected by the union, has the right to accompany the OSHA inspector during an inspection. You can also appoint a management member (such as the company’s safety director) to act as the host, who would ideally be a neutral party during the inspection. Finally, it’s a good idea to keep a backup company representative and host in case the designated personnel are unavailable or have a day off (OSHA inspectors usually wait no longer than an hour for the representative).
The representative should know where all the company’s safety-related documents are located, have an understanding of OSHA standards, and be familiar with OSHA’s procedures for handling an inspection. They should also be well-organized and courteous, and willing to cooperate with the OSHA inspectors, as these characteristics leave a positive impression on the inspector.
3. Know Your Rights
Before an OSHA compliance officer ever turns up, it’s a good idea to know your rights and inform your employees of their rights. Here are some rights that you should know of:
- As an employer, you have the right to have a company representative (separate from the workers’ representative) present during the inspection.
- You also have the right to demand a warrant from an OSHA inspector and verify their credentials before allowing them to enter your worksite.
- Employees should be advised to respond honestly to questions, but they are not under any obligation to speak with the OSHA inspector.
- Employees can ask OSHA not to record their conversations.
- Employees are not required to sign a witness statement. If they agree to sign one, the statement must be in a language they are fluent in (if not, the employee can insist on it being written in their native language).
4. Prepare for Significant Investigations (If Applicable)
You need to take special care if the OSHA inspection was triggered by a catastrophic accident or fatality in the workplace due to the added legal complexities involved. If such an incident occurs, an OSHA inspection is almost guaranteed, so be sure to engage legal counsel immediately (even before OSHA starts the inspection, if possible).
Your legal counsel should closely supervise and monitor all aspects of the inspection. This is because the consequences of such inspections can be significant — with fines exceeding $1 million and even criminal penalties if it's found that the incident was due to a willful violation of OSHA standards.
The Stages of an OSHA Inspection
The OSHA inspection process has several stages, and there are things you should keep in mind to ensure that each stage goes smoothly. The inspection may take anywhere from a few hours to several weeks, depending on factors like the number of hazards, what triggered the inspection, workplace size, etc. The different stages of the inspection (and what to do in each of them) are as follows:
OSHA compliance officers prepare for an inspection before conducting one. This stage involves researching the inspection history of your worksite, reviewing the operations in use, and looking up the OSHA standards applicable to the worksite. They also gather appropriate personal protective equipment and testing instruments they will use to measure safety hazards.
This is before an inspector even reaches your workplace, so there is nothing you need to do at this stage.
Presentation of OSHA Credentials
As soon as an OSHA inspector arrives at your worksite, they are required to present their credentials, which should include their photograph and serial number. If the OSHA officer does not immediately present these credentials, you can politely request to see them, and a genuine OSHA employee will happily show them to you. If in doubt, you can contact OSHA to verify the officer’s identity.
You are also within your rights to demand a search warrant from OSHA. Getting the warrant will delay the inspection and give you extra time to prepare; it can also limit the scope of the inspection. However, if you request a warrant, you may come across as uncooperative and alienate the inspector, which might result in a harsher assessment and an increased likelihood of citations. Weigh the pros and cons before requesting a warrant.
Once the OSHA officer shows their credentials, they will explain why your workplace is being inspected and describe details about the inspection, such as:
- The scope of the inspection
- Walkaround procedures
- Employee interviews, which the employee can request to be private or with managers present
After this, the inspector usually checks your company’s OSHA Form 300 Log of Injuries and Illnesses, your company’s hazard assessment records, and other OSHA-required documentation.
At this stage, it’s good to have the employee representative as well as your host greet the inspector and have the required records handy to show if the inspector requests them.
Next, the compliance officer, accompanied by the representatives, will walk through the work areas covered by the inspection. The officer will inspect for safety or health hazards that could lead to worker injuries. Depending on what they find, the inspector may decide to check for hazards not included in the complaint or expand the inspection to cover other areas. Inspectors are supposed to minimize work interruptions and keep any trade secrets observed during the inspection confidential.
The inspector usually takes notes about their observations, and they may also take photographs, videos, or samples to support their findings. The company representative should note everything the OSHA inspector notes and document every conversation. Any photographic or other evidence (e.g., instrument readings, air samples, noise readings) should be duplicated, as it may help if you need to take corrective action later.
During the walkaround, the inspector may point out some violations that can be corrected immediately. While these will still be cited, correcting these hazards promptly is a sign of good faith and may reduce any penalties you face.
During the walkaround, compliance officers are also likely to interview a reasonable number of employees. Encourage the employees to cooperate with the inspector by pointing out hazards, describing past incidents, and detailing other complaints that they are aware of.
Finally, the compliance officer discusses their findings with the employer and the representatives in a closing conference. Here the inspector shares details about any violations they found during the OSHA inspection and may issue proposed penalties as well. The inspector also discusses possible courses of action that would follow the inspection, such as an informal conference with OSHA or the process for contesting any citations.
During the closing conference, you may show records of the company’s compliance efforts to the inspector, as well as provide information to help OSHA decide how much time is needed to abate a violation. To make sure you have enough time to correct an issue, it’s a good practice to consult your team and estimate the time for corrective actions. However, there may not be enough time to come up with a proper plan during the conference, so it’s a good idea to send a follow-up letter to the inspector addressing their concerns.
After the OSHA Inspection
Once the OSHA inspection is complete, the inspector usually notes violations and forwards their decisions regarding citations and proposed penalties to the OSHA area director, who then sends it to you. Citations must be issued within six months of the inspection. If you want to contest a citation, you must do so within 15 working days after the issuance.
An Online Solution Can Make the Inspection Go Smoother
From keeping documentation handy to making sure your representative records everything the OSHA inspector is doing, there’s a lot to keep in mind to make sure an inspection goes well. Trying to do it all manually may lead to costly mistakes.
To prevent this, you can use an online platform such as Pulpstream. This cloud-based solution will enable you to store all your records in a single, easy-to-find place. Your representative can take notes and collect and store data such as photographs and samples on the platform during the inspection, making recordkeeping simple and efficient. Such methodical records are also more likely to leave a good impression on the OSHA inspector, which is always helpful during an inspection.
So what are you waiting for? Be well-prepared for OSHA inspections with Pulpstream. Book a free demo today!