The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an agency of the Department of Labor (DOL), conducts about 73,000 workplace inspections each year. Given that OSHA or its state agencies have jurisdiction over 8 million job sites, the chances of your business being inspected are slim. Still, it’s best to be prepared for an OSHA inspection and to know what to expect if an OSHA inspector knocks on your door.
OSHA focuses its inspection resources on the country’s most hazardous workplaces, based on the following order of priority:
Not all complaints and referrals result in an on-site inspection. For lower-priority hazards, OSHA may call the employer to discuss safety and health concerns. OSHA will follow up with written details, and the employer must report back within five working days with the corrective actions it has taken or plans to take. If the response is adequate and the complainant is satisfied, OSHA will generally not conduct an on-site inspection.
In most cases, you won’t be given advance notice of an on-site inspection. The rare exception is if there is an imminent danger in your workplace and OSHA wants you to correct the situation as quickly as possible.
Because there is no advance notice, it’s best to have an OSHA inspection preparation plan. Your plan should include:
If a union represents your employees, you should identify a union representative to be part of the inspection process. In addition, the inspector will take notes and may take photos or make video recordings of your workplace. These will not be shared with you. But you are allowed to take your own notes, photos and videos and ask questions, so designate someone to do that.
OSHA certified safety and health officials (CSHOs) conduct the majority of inspections. CSHOs who specialize in physical hazards or procedural problems are known as safety inspectors. Industrial hygienists are CSHOs who specialize in occupational health hazards such as chemical vapors, asbestos, respirator issues and noise. Industrial hygienists may take noise or air samples. If at all possible, you should take your own samples at the same time for your records.
CSHOs are required to show identification when they arrive. You should check the compliance officer’s credentials, which include a photo and a serial number. There have been cases of scammers impersonating OSHA inspectors and requesting payment of fines, something real compliance officers never do. So if you have any doubts about the CSHO’s credentials, contact your local OSHA office or the DOL’s Office of the Inspector General to verify an officer’s identity.
There are differences of opinion over whether it is ever a good idea to demand a warrant before consenting to an inspection. While requesting one will buy you some extra time, OSHA may view it as a reason for enhanced scrutiny and bring a team of experienced compliance officers when they return with a warrant.
Most experts say that it is reasonable to ask the inspector to wait while the appropriate manager is notified and can arrive in person to greet the inspector. This will give you time to put your OSHA inspection preparation plan into action.
It’s best to avoid a confrontational attitude. Employers who cooperate during an inspection and demonstrate good faith are more likely to be given some leeway by the inspector.
OSHA inspections follow a set format consisting of an opening conference, a walk-around inspection and a closing conference. Be prepared for all three phases.
During the opening conference, the CSHO is required to outline the reason for the inspection and its scope. If a complaint has been filed, the inspector should present it (with the complainant’s personal information omitted). It’s best not to comment about the complaint or who may have made it, since the law protects employees who file OSHA complaints.
Employee representative(s) such as your union representative should be present at the opening conference.
Before the inspection begins, the compliance officer should discuss each party’s rights and responsibilities. These include:
Following the opening conference, the compliance officer and the representatives will walk through the areas of the workplace covered by the inspection, checking for hazards that could lead to employee injury or illness.
The compliance officer will also review your injury and illness records and prevention programs, and check whether the official OSHA poster is properly displayed. It is important that you have all of the necessary records and documents available. Such items might include, but aren’t limited to:
If you don’t have copies of requested documents, the CSHO may agree to let you mail them to the local OSHA office. Make copies of all documents requested for your own files.
During the walk-around, the compliance officer may point out some apparent violations that can be corrected immediately. While the law requires that these hazards still be cited, prompt correction is a sign of good faith on your part and may result in reduced penalties. You also can ask questions about how best to correct these hazards.
The CSHO may ask to interview individual employees. You should select a place where the officer can conduct these brief interviews. Employees can elect to have a supervisor present during the interview.
You don’t have to allow access to areas of your facility that aren’t covered by the inspection, so resist providing a wide-ranging plant tour. Any violations an inspector sees in “plain view,” even if they are outside the prescribed inspection area, can be cited.
Most inspections are completed in one day, but some may require multiple visits, depending on the size of the facility and the number of hazards identified.
After the walk-around, the compliance officer holds a closing conference with the employer and the employee representatives to go over the findings. The officer will note any violations that may result in a citation or fine; discuss potential corrective actions and reasonable timelines; and describe possible courses of action you may take, such as an informal conference with OSHA or contesting citations and proposed penalties. The compliance officer also discusses consultation services and employee rights.
The conference might not occur immediately after the walk-around. In fact, it may take place over the phone one to six weeks after the inspection. If an industrial hygienist has taken samples, there may be a separate closing conference after the test results have been received. Regardless of when or how the conference is conducted, be attentive to what the inspector says, ask questions and take notes.
The closing conference is a good time to highlight your safety programs and talk about your commitment to health and safety. OSHA takes this into account when establishing penalty amounts. It is also a good time to report any abatement already made or soon-to-be made to hazards identified during the inspection.
OSHA must issue a citation and proposed penalty within six months if a violation has been determined. Citations describe OSHA requirements allegedly violated, list any proposed penalties and give a deadline for correcting the hazards.
OSHA has a policy of reducing penalties for small employers and those acting in good faith. OSHA may also reduce the proposed penalty based on the gravity of the violation. However, no good faith adjustment will be made for violations determined by OSHA to be willful or repeat violations.
Employers who have been cited must immediately notify their employees by posting the citation notice at or near each place where a violation occurred for three working days or until all violations are abated/corrected (whichever is longer). You must comply with this notice requirement, even if you decide to contest the citation.
If you agree with the citation and penalties, you must abate all violations by the deadline and return a special form stating that the hazards have been abated.
You have the option to request an extension to abate the hazards. You also have 15 working days after receipt of a citation to formally contest it in a written notice to the OSHA area director.
During that 15-day period — and before you decide to contest your citation — you may request an informal conference with the area director to discuss your citation, penalties, abatement dates or any other information pertinent to your inspection. This is an opportunity to work out a settlement agreement to resolve the matter. OSHA states that its primary goal is to correct hazards and maintain compliance, rather than issue citations or collect penalties.
OSHA offers several programs to help employers improve workplace safety. Among these resources are:
Working with your insurance professional, you may be able to better manage risk in the workplace. Connect with us about the risk mitigation tools they offer to help with controlling risk exposure. Your broker or agent is a good resource for loss-control and risk-mitigation program assistance.
Many workplace injuries and illnesses fall under either workers’ compensation or general liability insurance, depending on who is harmed. Whenever a worker is injured on the job or made ill, workers’ compensation insurance is generally triggered. Whenever a visitor or client is injured or made ill while on the premises, commercial general liability insurance is generally triggered.
None of these policies will protect you, however, from the cost of repairing an OSHA violation, or the fines, penalties, press or legal fees associated with a negative action against your business. Taking preventive measures is always the best way to protect your workers, guests and company.
David was raised in Michigan City. He attended Purdue Northwest and Indiana University Bloomington. He joined General Insurance Services in April 2012. Prior to insurance, he spent 15 years in the business community managing and running restaurants in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana for Bob Evans Farms. He serves on the Board of Directors for the Boys and Girls Club of Michigan City and the Michigan City Rotary club. In his free time, he enjoys, exercising, reading, the beach, time with his children and riding his motorcycle. He has also attained a 4th degree Black Belt in Taekwondo and his Black Belt in Hapkido.