Surviving OSHA Inspections

Is there anything more nerve wrecking than the thought of an Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) inspector showing up for an impromptu worksite inspection? While OSHA inspections are dreaded by most, the greatest source of stress is having no idea what the inspection will entail. Worrying about an impending OSHA inspection is often just as bad, if not worse, than the inspection itself. Knowing what to expect is one particular way to alleviate much of this nervous tension.

The purpose of this (white paper) is to lessen that fear of an impending OSHA inspection by offering a few survival tips. In this (white paper), we will educate you not he who OSHA is, what they do, how the agency chooses who to inspect, how these inspections work, and how your worksite can best prepare for an OSHA inspection.

We’ve compiled various suggestions and tips from companies that OSHA has already inspected to gain valuable insight into how the inspection process works. We are sharing our finding with you because we believe this knowledge will help worksites diminish the likelihood of citations, limit the disruptive impact of an inspection, and hopefully reduce the amount of any potential fines and penalties.

What is OSHA?

OSHA is a federal agency of the United States. As part of the Department of Labor, OSHA regulates workplace safety and health. Congress established the agency as part of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. This act was introduced as a means to limit worksite hazards to prevent work-related injuries, illnesses, and fatalities. The agency was created to administer and enforce these regulations and President Richard Nixon signed the act into law on December 29, 1970.

The OSHA mission statement reads as follows:

“To assure the safety and health of American workers by setting and enforcing standards; and encouraging continual improvement in workplace safety.”

The worksite inspection is a key part of the rigid OSHA enforcement process. These inspections are conducted to ensure that workplaces are OSHA compliant and following all of the standards and regulations set forth by the agency. OSHA inspections aren’t done out of spite or with the intent to shut you down, however, there are potentially serious repercussions for violations.

Depending on the seriousness of the violations, specifically the types of risks and dangers workers are exposed to and the company’s attitude and prior history, OSHA imposed penalties can be as high as $70,000. Fines tend to be higher for any company that commits a repeat or willful violations, while fines are kept reasonable for any company the inspector believes to be ethical and acting in good faith.

So Many Workplaces, So Few Inspectors

There are approximately 2,000 OSHA inspectors throughout the country. This figure includes inspectors in 26 states where OSHA programs are run at a state-level. In recent years, OSHA has averaged roughly 35,000 inspections on a federal-level with another 50,000 inspections coming from the state programs.

Although this may seem like a lot of inspections, consider for a moment how many U.S. workplaces there are. Also factor in that are over five million work-related injuries and illnesses annually. It then becomes obvious that 85,000 inspections is just a drop in a bucket.

So what does OSHA take into consideration when determining whom to inspect?

Priorities of an OSHA Inspection

Since OSHA obviously can’t inspect every workplace, the agency has established a set of priorities for determining whom to inspect:

  • An inspection is conducted in response to any reported imminent dangers – for example, on-site hazards or conditions that could potentially cause accidents, injuries, or illnesses.
  • An inspection will be ordered in response to a worksite fatality or an accident serious enough to hospitalize at least three employees.
  • An inspection will be carried out in response to employee complaints.
  • An inspection will be performed in response to a recommendation from another government agency.
  • Inspections can sometimes target worksites where employees report a high number of illnesses or injuries and industries known for particularly hazardous work.
  • Inspections can be conducted as a follow-up to a previous inspection.

Scope of an OSHA inspection

The scope of an OSHA inspection varies depending on the circumstances. How comprehensive an inspection will be is largely dependent on the type of facility and the situation that has brought the inspector there. There are two types of inspections conducted by OSHA:

Comprehensive Inspections – As the name implies, this is the most thorough inspection where the inspector searches all nooks and crannies on-site searching for potentially hazardous conditions and reviews all operations and practices.

Partial Inspections – This type of inspection is more limited as the inspector’s focus is on a specific hazard, worksite condition, or practice. It should be noted that the OSHA inspector on-site has full discretion to convert a partial inspection into an on-the-spot comprehensive inspection based on findings that indicate other problems.

The Inspection Process

Some insight into how the actual inspection process works should help calm some of those nerves, right? This is why we’ve put together this text snapshot of the general OSHA inspection process.

The Inspector Has Arrived…

An inspector will typically arrive at your workplace during traditional 9 to 5 business hours. There is generally no advanced notice of the inspection, although there may be some exceptions to that rule depending on circumstances. The OSHA inspector has an obligation to present his or her credentials to the owner, owner representative, operator, or agent responsible for handling safety compliance issues.

Note: If the OSHA inspector fails to present credentials to you, don’t hesitate to ask as you would ask any stranger arriving at your workplace unexpectedly. It’s not only your right to ask to verify credentials but it’s also essential to the security of your workplace and safety of your employees. Just maintain a pleasant demeanor and remember that someone claiming to be an OSHA inspector is most likely and actual inspector. 

A bona fide OSHA inspector cannot be denied entry into your facility. However, you have the right to ask the inspector to present a warrant for the inspection and deny entry until a warrant is presented. Exceptions – You cannot refuse entry for the lack of a warrant if you or one of your representatives has already granted prior consent. Additionally, emergencies or last-minute unavailability are also not acceptable reason to refuse entry for inspection.

Note: Before this right is exercised, be mindful of the fact that your inspector is human and capable of acting on emotion. Any attempt to make his or her job more challenging or stall the inspection may result in a tougher, more comprehensive inspection. But don’t hesitate to exercise your right to demand a warrant from the inspector if you have good reason to.

Once the inspector presents a warrant, you absolutely must let him or her in. Under no circumstances can you interfere with the inspection, but you can require the inspector to follow the same rules, guidelines, and procedures that other guests or employees must adhere to. For instance, if any worker or visitor to the site is required to wear goggles or other mandatory personal protective equipment, you can insist that the inspector abides by this policy.

Employer/Employee Representative Participation:

Prior to the inspection, the inspector will ask if you’d like one or more representatives to accompany them as they conduct their inspection. While this is an important right, it should be made clear that these representatives can aid, not interfere, with the inspection.

Opening Conference:

The inspector is required to notify “all affected” of the purpose of his or her inspection. If the inspection is being conducted in response to a complaint, the inspector must present a copy of that complaint. Prior to the actual inspection, the inspector should conduct a brief meeting, known as the opening conference, with the employer or employer representative and either the employees or their representative.

It’s during this meeting that the inspector explains why they’re visiting and what the inspection will involve. If the inspector tries to immediately conduct the inspection without this opening conference, kindly remind them that it’s within your rights to know the grounds for the inspection and what it entails.

Note: If you’re still unclear as to why the inspection is being conducted, politely ask for an explanation while reiterating that you’re willing to fully cooperate and participate. While you shouldn’t hide anything, you must also be careful to not talk so much that you’re divulging information to the inspector that isn’t relevant to the purpose of the inspection. Saying too much can sometimes turn a partial inspection into a comprehensive one.

There can either be a joint conference involving all parties at the same time, which is preferred in the interest of the open communications, or a separate opening conference for each group.

The Walk-Around Inspection:

The most critical part of any OSHA workplace visits is the walk-around inspection. This is where the inspector tours your workplace looking for any potential safety and health hazards while evaluating that worksite conditions, operations, and practices are all OSHA compliant.

As mentioned earlier, it’s always recommended that you have one or more company representative escort the inspect for this walking tour, just as long as nobody disrupts the inspection process. During the walk-around inspection, the inspector may:

Take Necessary Photographs and/or Video: For instance, a photograph may be taken if a machine lacking a proper guard is observed to document the violation. Keep in mind that you have the right to request a copy of any photographs, videos, or audio recording taken during the inspection.

Note: In a comprehensive inspection, an inspector can look at anything they desire, however, most inspections are limited in scope. This means the inspector should only be photographing or recording things relevant to the reason they’re visited. For instance, it wouldn’t be appropriate if an inspector photographed a piece of equipment in the boiler room if the basis of their inspection is an unrelated complaint. Exception: An inspector has the discretion to widen the scope of their inspection if they observe imminent hazards/dangers during their walk-around inspection.

Collect Samples: An inspector can collect air and/or surface samples they deem necessary. Once again, you have the right to request a summary of the test/lab results of this surface sampling, but you must make the request.

Interview Employees: An inspector can ask employees to point out on-site hazards or conditions that concern them. They can also interview employees to determine if conditions may have been altered due to advance notice of an impending inspection. These interviews can be conducted in private. Employees statement remain confidential but can be sued in court if necessary. Employee interviews are commonly conducted during the walk-around inspection, but employees can be questioned at any time during the visit.

Review Records: The inspector may ask to review OSHA 300 logs or accident reports either prior to, during, or after the walk-around inspection.

Request On-the-Spot Problem Fix: It’s not uncommon for an inspector to offer advice or suggestions to correct deficiencies or hazards observed during the walk-around inspection. The inspector may even present you with an opportunity to fix the issue while they’re present to avoid being the recipient of a citation.

Note – Bring a camera if you’re accompanying the inspector during the walk-around tour and guarantee accuracy by photographing the same items observed and photographed by the inspector. 

Note – Document everything the inspector says and ask plenty of questions.

Note – Don’t put down or degrade an employee or employees while the inspector is present.

Note – Don’t argue with the inspector’s observations or try to rush the process. Instead be helpful and informative (but not too informative).

Note – Only offer your cooperation to the inspector – the inspector is unable to accept any offer from you; such as lunch.

Closing Conference:

At the conclusion of the actual inspection, the inspector will conduct a closing conference where he or she describes their finding during the inspection. They will break down any violations found and quote a timeframe for you to correct these issues. The same parties present during the opening conference should attend this conference.

Note – If you’ve accompanied the inspector during the walk-around,; and were observant, it’s likely you’ll already know what he violations or concerns the inspector will mention during the closing conference. Be prepared to offer an explanation and provide an estimated timeframe to fix the noted issues during this closing conference.

The inspector may schedule a time to conduct a second closing conference, either in person or over the phone, if they don’t have all the necessary information ready for the first conference.

Citation and Abatement:

You’ll receive a copy of any citation issued by certified mail. This citation will include an abatement date, which is a deadline to correct the problem that prompted the citation. This abatement date can be contested if you feel more time is needed but this must be done in writing within 15 business days of receiving your copy of the citation.

Note – Rather than waiting for your citation copy to arrive by certified mail, you may also request that your inspector fax or email you the citation(s) once everything is ready. 

Copies of these citations must be posted in your workplace in an area that is accessible to all employees. They must remain posted for three days minimum or until the violation is abated. Once the problem has been corrected, evidence of the abatement must be provided and your compliance must be documented.

Follow-Up Inspection

OSHA may request a follow-up inspection to confirm that any violations you’ve been cited for have been rectified. Any violation that requires some time to correct may warrant a monitoring inspection. In this instance, OSHA sends an inspector to your site to confirm the hazard is being addressed and workers are adequately protected as the abatement proceeds. Follow-up monitoring inspections aren’t very common if you provide proof that the issue is in the process of being abated. Monitoring inspections are generally reserved for employers who were cited for willful, repeat, or very serious hazards and violations creating imminent danger.

How to Prepare

Here are a few ways to prepare for an OSHA inspection:

Evaluate your chance of being inspected:

As we mentioned earlier, OSHA doesn’t have the available resources to inspect everybody. By sheer mathematical statistics of probability, your chances of being targeted for an inspection are relatively low. However, this doesn’t apply if you specialize in an especially dangerous field or industry or if your workplace can be linked to high volume of injuries and illnesses.

If you combine that basic understanding of whom OSHA primarily targets, and compare it to OSHA public data that cites how many inspections they perform, the reason for each inspection, and the type of inspection carried out, you can evaluate the likelihood of an OSHA inspector showing up at your workplace. This evaluation involves:

  • Determining if OSHA is targeting your industry-type – for instance, chemical and steel plants or refineries are typically inspected more frequently as they pose a higher risk of imminent danger.
  • Determining if the injury frequency rate at your workplace is normal to that of your industry. If it’s above average, you’re more likely to be face-to-face with an OSHA inspector at some point.
  • Comparing the severity of work-related injuries and workers’ compensation costs to your industry norm. Again, if incidents are at a higher rate, your chance of being inspected is greater.
  • Don’t forget that the reliability of these types of evaluations is limited. Even if your industry-type isn’t considered to be dangerous, and incidences of work-related injury or workers’ compensation claims are lower than industry norms, all it takes is one phone call from an employee or one unforeseen mishap to prompt an OSHA inspection.

The bottom line: Any work-site or workplace is at risk of an OSHA inspection. The better prepared you are, the less of an ordeal it will be.

Identify Applicable Standards to Your Operation:

Part of being prepared is to identify the OSHA standards that are most applicable to your workplace and operations. From here, determine your site’s level of OSHA standards compliance and develop an action plan and tracking system for found deficiencies.

This very involved process isn’t a one-and-done job. It must be on going. One recommended starting point is to take a quick glance at the top OSHA standards currently being cited during inspections.

The usual suspects may include:

  • Powered Industrial Trucks
  • Scaffolding
  • Machine Guarding
  • Electrical Requirements, Wiring Methods
  • Respiratory Protection
  • Lockout/Tagout
  • Bloodborne Pathogens
  • Hazard Communication
  • Fall Protection – Construction
  • Hearing Protection

Visit the OSHA website at www.OSHA.gov to find more.

Be Committed to Safety:

It’s easy to become preoccupied with what’s needed for OSHA compliance, but remember that these standards were implemented because industries weren’t doing an adequate job of protecting workers – often resulting in serious injury, illness, and sometimes death. By being committed to your workers and their safety, you will naturally be OSHA compliant and won’t have to swath the possibility of an OSHA inspection.