The Ins and Outs of OSHA Inspections
Make no mistake: OSHA has the authority to conduct workplace inspections to determine if you’re following safety and health standards. Compliance officers – OSHA’s term for inspectors – can “inspect and investigate all pertinent conditions, structures, machines, apparatus, devices, equipment and materials” in a workplace. As part of the process, they can question employers, owners, operators, agents and employees, along with reviewing mandatory OSHA records.
While OSHA is entitled to inspect any of the millions of workplaces it covers, it can’t realistically visit every business.
Instead, it centers its attention on the most hazardous situations in the following order of priority:
- Imminent-danger situations: Hazards that could cause death or serious physical harm.
- Fatalities and catastrophes: Incidents that involve a death or the hospitalization of three or more employees. (Remember, all employers must report such catastrophes to OSHA within eight hours.)
- Complaints: Allegations of hazards or violations. Employees, by the way, may request anonymity when they file complaints.
- Referrals of hazard information: Tip-offs that may come from other federal, state or local agencies; individuals; organizations; or the media.
- Follow-ups: Checks to make sure you took care of violations cited in previous inspections.
- Planned or programmed investigations: Inspections into specific high-hazard industries or individual workplaces that have high rates of injuries and illnesses. Note: OSHA normally conducts comprehensive safety inspections in manufacturing establishments with lost-workday injury rates at or above the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) national rate for manufacturing.
Inspections are nearly always conducted without notice. Under special circumstances, however, OSHA will notify you of an inspection planned within 24 hours. These include: imminent-danger situations; accident investigations based on the reporting of a fatality or catastrophe; inspections that must take place after regular business hours or that require special preparation; cases where notice is necessary to ensure the employer or employee representative is present; and situations where an OSHA Area Director feels a notice would lead to a more thorough or effective inspection.
Planning for an OSHA Inspection
You might get inspected, you might not. When it comes to OSHA enforcement, it’s smart to run your business as if you will – and take the proper steps to make sure an unannounced inspection goes smoothly. You should:
- Display the mandatory OSHA (and state plan) poster in a conspicuous spot.
- It’s the law, and it’s an easy thing to do. Yet many people forget to do so, or just refuse to take the time.
- Know the standards you’re subject to.
- Review all the standards that apply to you, and be certain you’re in full compliance. Even further, educate yourself on the standards OSHA inspectors frequently cite in your industry and state.
To help you with your research, go to osha.gov and click on “Data & Statistics.” Then choose “Frequently Cited OSHA Standards.” Enter the number of employees in your company, your state (“federal” if your state is not listed), then the NAISC code. (Don’t know it? Submit this box empty for a list.)
For example, say you run a residential building construction company in Arizona and you have 32 employees. Your SIC is 2361. The top three cited standards that come up are:
- Ladders (1926.1053)
- General requirements (1926.0451)
- Asbestos (1926.1101)
You can do the same exercise “backwards” by choosing a standard you know you’re subject to and seeing how often it is cited in certain industries. For example, say you are subject to respiratory protection standard, 1910.0134. You learn that the top three industries were:
- Manufacturing (part 3 of 3)
- Manufacturing (part 2 of 3)
- Visit OSHA’s “Local Emphasis Programs” page under “Enforcement”.
- This shows you what inspectors are concentrating on in your area. For instance, in one particular period, inspectors were targeting auto body shops in Maine, highway and street construction in New Jersey, blast furnaces in West Virginia, and logging operations in Idaho. This is priceless information if you’re in one of the listed industries.
- Attend to the general environment of your business.
- Besides complying with the specific standards that apply to your industry, don’t forget the more general ones. These will include such things as housekeeping, emergency exits, etc. Having an uncluttered, clean workplace sends a positive message to inspectors.
- Make sure all records are up to date.
- Besides injury and illness records, this includes records pertaining to training and any emergency or hazard plans, and other programs you might be required to have, such as lockout/tagout procedures. Having a formal safety program (something your state may require) also sends a strong message to an inspector about your commitment to workplace safety.
- Prepare your staff for a visit.
- In most cases, you won’t know when an inspector will show up at your doorstep. So train your staff on the procedures to follow when an inspector arrives. For example, the person who greets the inspector (usually the receptionist) should ask the inspector to wait in the lobby, entrance or reception area while a high-ranking manager is called. As the manager leads the inspector to a meeting room or personal office, he or she should avoid employee work areas, high-traffic areas or other operating areas of the facility.
What to Expect During an Inspection
OSHA follows a specific process when conducting safety inspections. Inspectors in states with their own plans will follow similar, if not identical, procedures.
- The inspector researches your establishment and industry, becoming familiar with as many relevant facts as possible about your workplace. This includes your inspection history, the nature of your business and the particular standards that might apply.
- The inspector shows up at your doorstep and shares his or her credentials. If this doesn’t happen, ask to see them. (Note: Watch out for scammers! Official safety inspectors never collect fines on the spot, or try to sell products or services.)
- Opening conference.
- The inspection begins with a conference. The inspector explains how your establishment was selected and the purpose of the visit, the scope of the inspection and the standards that apply. Inspections sometimes center on one area or process; other times they are open, full-scale inspections. If an employee complaint led to the inspection, the compliance officer will provide a copy of the complaint. If you’re not sure why the inspector is there, be sure to ask and to verify the scope of the visit.
At the opening conference, you’ll be asked to select an employer representative
to accompany the inspector. Inspectors also give authorized employee representatives the opportunity to attend the opening conference and join the inspection group. Such a representative might be a union agent, a member of the safety committee or someone the employees or inspectors select. If an employee representative is not required, the inspector will talk with employees to get a picture of the facility’s safety practices.
- Walk through.
- After the opening conference, the compliance officer and accompanying representatives walk through the establishment to inspect work areas for safety and health hazards. The compliance officer determines the route and duration of the inspection. Compliance officers are supposed to minimize any work interruptions. They may observe safety and health conditions and practices; take photos, video recordings and instrument readings; examine records; collect air samples; measure noise levels; survey existing engineering controls; and monitor employee exposure to toxic fumes, gases and dusts. Inspectors may stop and question workers, in private, about safety conditions and practices in their workplaces.
- Violations spotted.
- During the course of the inspection, compliance officers will point out any unsafe or unhealthful working conditions, and they will discuss possible corrective action. Some violations can be corrected immediately (yet may still serve as the basis for a citation). OSHA may reduce the penalties for some violations if they are corrected immediately and you show good faith in maintaining a safe workplace. If inspectors see a violation outside the scope of the inspection, they may expand it.
- Records review.
- Compliance officers then inspect records of fatalities, injuries and illnesses. They will check whether the OSHA workplace poster is displayed prominently, and they will examine records of employee exposure to toxic substances and harmful physical agents. The inspector will also ask to see a copy of your Hazard Communication program, assuming you are covered by that standard.
- Closing conference.
- A closing conference with the inspector, employer, employees and/or the employees’ representative is held at the end of the inspection. The inspector gives the employer and all other parties involved a copy of Employer Rights and Responsibilities Following an OSHA Inspection for review and discussion. The inspector then discusses all unsafe or unhealthful conditions observed during the inspection, which may include:
- The nature of the violation
- Potential measures to correct the hazard
- Correction dates you may be required to meet
- Possible penalties by the Area Safety Director
The compliance officer may hold more than one closing conference. This is usually necessary when the inspection includes an evaluation of health hazards, after a review of additional laboratory reports, or after additional factual evidence surfaces when wrapping up an accident investigation.
Outcomes of an inspection
Depending on what is revealed during a compliance officer’s visit, an inspection can have several outcomes.
- Best case: The inspector finds no deficiencies.
- Next-best case: The inspector spots a few minor deficiencies and asks you to fix them.
- Not-so-good case: The inspector finds several violations. He reports them to the Area Safety Director, who determines whether you’ll receive citations and/or penalties. OSHA must issue a citation and proposed penalty within six months of the violation’s occurrence.
- Worst case: The inspector finds numerous violations, including some that are truly dangerous. If you don’t fix them immediately, the inspector may go to court to shut down the company. Citations and penalties will follow.