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Preparing for and Dealing With OSHA Inspections

Posted on February 02, 2016 by Lee Ann Coniglione

No matter how many OSHA workplace safety inspections you’ve been through, the sound of an inspector knocking may still make you anxious. In most cases, OSHA inspectors—also known as Compliance Safety and Health Officers (CSHOs)—will arrive at your workplace without providing advanced notice. As a result, safety inspections often come as a surprise to the employer, which only adds to the uncertainty and anxiety.

That said, by knowing the protocol inspectors follow and how the Agency decides which facilities to inspect and which to pass over, safety professionals can be confident that even if they don’t know when OSHA is coming, they are fully prepared to welcome and impress the inspector.

OSHA compliance for general industry

How OSHA Chooses Who to Inspect

Since OSHA does not have the resources to inspect every US workplace on an annual basis, the Agency has established a hierarchy that ensures the highest-priority workplaces undergo inspection first. OSHA prioritizes its inspection responsibilities as follows:
  1. Imminent danger situations—These are inspections carried out in workplaces where health and safety risks are greatest and pose the potential for serious injury and/or a fatality at any time.
  2. Severe injuries and illnesses—Next are workplaces where the number and severity of injuries and illnesses, as reported by employers, serve as a red flag. These workplaces include those associated with employee amputations, in-patient hospitalizations, and fatalities.
  3. Worker complaints—OSHA takes employee complaints about workplace hazards very seriously, so it’s no surprise that this category makes the priority listing. Employer retaliation against anyone filing a complaint with OSHA is illegal.
  4. Referrals—Many workplaces are subject to more than one agency’s set of rules and regulations. A visit by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may spur a subsequent visit by OSHA due to the fact that an EPA inspector took note of some serious health or safety conditions in the workplace.
  5. Targeted inspections—Industries with a history of being labeled as “high-hazard” are included on the inspection priority list. OSHA’s Federal Agency Targeting Inspection Program (FEDTARG) bases inspections on those facilities with the highest number of reported lost-time cases.
  6. Follow-up inspections—Last on OSHA’s priority listing are those inspections that are done as a check to see if previously cited violations have in fact been eliminated.
Two Types of OSHA Inspections

  1. Not all OSHA inspections are carried out on site. In cases where OSHA deems an in-person visit unnecessary (typically low-priority cases), the Agency may communicate its concerns to the employer via telephone or fax. Once OSHA notifies an employer about a workplace health or safety concern, the employer has five business days to respond. If OSHA is satisfied with the employer’s corrective action(s) and the response is received in a timely manner, OSHA generally does not visit the site.
  2. Higher-priority circumstances involving employee complaints or above-average injury and illness incidence rates are likely to warrant an on-site inspection. Before inspecting a facility, OSHA personnel do a fair amount of prep work to gather background information. Through the many data collection tools available to them, inspectors can find out how many employees work at your facility, whether or not you’ve been issued any previous citations, and your site’s overall injury and illness rate before they show up on site.
The inspector will be prepared. So should you!

Three Tips to Prepare for an OSHA Inspection

Now that we have some insight as to how the compliance officers prepare for an inspection, let’s talk about some things you can do to prepare on your end.

Be Proactive. Perhaps most important is that employers take a proactive approach to educating their employees about the basics of a regulatory inspection. This can be done in a small setting as part of a tool box talk or in front of a larger audience as part of a site-wide meeting. Regardless, all employees should be aware of their employer’s procedures when it comes to interacting with outside personnel, particularly regulatory personnel.

Check the Inspector’s Credentials. The scope and anticipated complexity of the inspection play a role in determining how many compliance officers will participate. No matter how many inspectors arrive at your facility, each compliance officer is expected to present his/her credentials, including a photo ID. It is not unheard of for individuals to represent themselves as regulatory inspectors in order to gain access to protected information about your business or the materials on hand at the facility.

Don’t Overdo It. It’s in the employer’s best interest to cooperatively participate in an OSHA inspection and avoid taking a defensive stance. While employers are expected to accommodate the compliance officer’s requests, keep in mind you don’t want to overdo it in terms of the amount of information provided. This holds true whether the information comes in the form of training records and other paperwork or employee interviews. Always provide what’s asked for, but don’t hand over extraneous information—“oversharing” in this case can lead to additional questions or concerns from the inspector.

The Pre-inspection Opening Conference

Once you’ve verified the inspector’s credentials at the door, an opening conference will take place. Employers should have a comfortable space reserved for the opening conference, like a conference room. Ideally, choose a space away from the hustle and bustle of the facility, with ample seating and telephone access to other areas. During the opening conference, the compliance officer will discuss the reason for the visit and the focus of the inspection. Employers are expected to appoint a company representative to accompany the compliance officer during the inspection. An authorized employee representative has the right to participate as well.

The Site Walk-Around

Next is the crux of the inspection: the walk-around portion. The walk-around allows the compliance officer to go out into the facility and talk with employees, make observations, and take notes. Most compliance officers will ask to speak with employees as a normal part of the inspection process, so employees should be aware of this ahead of time.

During the walk-around, the compliance officer will be on the lookout for readily apparent or potential health and safety hazards. They may ask to see a particular piece of equipment or where employees store their personal protective equipment (PPE). The compliance officer may even point out some health or safety hazards that can be corrected on the spot. If this is done, it’s in the employer’s best interest to correct the hazard as quickly as possible. Doing so demonstrates a good-faith effort on the part of the employer.

As part of the walk-around, environmental and personal samples may be taken to gather quantitative data about employee exposures or concentrations of harmful substances in air. If the compliance officers plan to perform any sampling, they will come prepared with their own equipment. In some cases, photographs may be taken. As a best practices, a company representative should mirror OSHA inspectors during the walk-around: Take split samples when the inspectors take samples, take photos when they take photos, etc. This ensures you have a clear, identical record of what inspectors saw and noted.

Review of Safety Logs and Training Records

In addition to the walk-around, the compliance officer will likely spend a fair amount of time reviewing records, particularly those related to workplace injuries and illnesses and employee training. Because records review is pretty much a given when it comes to an OSHA inspection, employers should have a streamlined records retention process already in place. If you have to tell a compliance officer that you need three days to produce employee training records because they are kept off site, it may reflect poorly on you and your site.

One item that compliance officers will likely ask to see is the location of the OSHA “Job Safety and Health – It’s the Law!” poster. OSHA requires this poster to be prominently displayed in an area accessible to all employees. The poster is available for free through the OSHA website, so there is no excuse for violating this mandate.

Closing Conference

Finally, the inspection will wrap up with a closing conference. If the inspection was relatively limited in scope, the closing conference may take place the same day as the opening conference. However, it is common for inspections to last longer, spanning several days or even weeks. The closing conference will be led by the compliance officer and include a summary of findings, any noted violations, and information on employer assistance and outreach programs available at no cost through OSHA. For more information, visit OSHA’s enforcement page here.

If you have ever taken part in an OSHA inspection, hopefully it went smoothly. However, in cases where OSHA does find violations, the Agency will normally issue a citation and proposed fine. Fines are generally assessed based on the nature of the violation. The most serious violations, such as “willful” or “repeated” ones, carry with them a maximum penalty of $70,000 per violation. Violations deemed “serious,” “other-than-serious,” or “de minimis” carry a maximum penalty of $7,000 per violation. In the case of “failure to abate” violations, the penalty is $7,000 per day past the abatement date.

Along with the citation, the compliance officer must include a deadline for hazard correction. Employers have the opportunity to participate in an informal conference with the Area Director of their OSHA office, if they wish to discuss the citations, proposed penalties, or abatement dates. Furthermore, employers have up to 15 business days after receiving the citation and penalty information to contest the violations in writing.

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