OSHA Inspection Guide

From: Staffing

OSHA Inspection Guide


Preparing for an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspection can be a daunting task for most employers, and the stakes can be high if you are not prepared. For the first time in decades, the penalties for noncompliance increased, along with steeper rates of prosecution for criminal liability in safety negligence cases. It makes good sense to plan ahead, do your own safety audit, train your teams, and be prepared for a potential audit.

OSHA Jurisdiction

OSHA covers most private sector employers and their employees in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and other U.S. jurisdictions either directly through federal OSHA or through an OSHA-approved state program (28 states have their own occupational safety and health state plans). Workers at state and local government agencies are not covered by federal OSHA, but have Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) protections if they work in those states that have an OSHA-approved state program. Four additional states and one U.S. territory have OSHA-approved plans that cover public sector workers only. State-run health and safety programs must be at least as effective as the federal OSHA program. To find the contact information for the OSHA federal or state program office nearest you, see the Regional and Area Offices map.

Those not covered by the OSH Act include self-employed workers, immediate family members of farm employers, and workers whose hazards are regulated by another federal agency (for example, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the Department of Energy, or Coast Guard).

Temporary Employees and Contract Workers

Be sure to include any temporary employees and contract workers in your safety protocols. Host employers need to treat temporary employees as they treat existing employees. Employers must assure that all workers — whether temporary, contract or existing — are provided with a safe workplace and all required training and protections. Temporary staffing agencies and host employers share control over the employee, and are therefore jointly responsible for temp employee’s safety and health.

To ensure that there is a clear understanding of each employer’s role in protecting employees, OSHA recommends that the temporary staffing agency and the host employer set out their respective responsibilities for compliance with applicable OSHA standards in their contract. Including such terms in a contract will ensure that each employer complies with all relevant regulatory requirements, thereby avoiding confusion as to the employer’s obligations. These obligations include meeting OSHA’s requirements in these areas:

  • Safety training for both general safety topics as well as equipment-specific training.
  • Hazard communication.
  • Recordkeeping.

OSHA Inspections: What You Should Know

OSHA inspections:

  • May be conducted without advance notice.
  • May be scheduled as on-site inspections or handled via a phone/fax investigation.
  • Are conducted with highly trained compliance officers.

Note that each state that administers its own occupational safety and health program may have different inspection procedures. Contact the state plan agency directly to determine if there are any different or additional state occupational safety and health protocols relating to state inspections.

Inspection Priorities

OSHA considers health and safety priorities in their inspection plans, according to the severity or frequency of the potential hazards:

  • Imminent danger situations: Hazards that could cause death or serious physical harm receive top priority. Compliance officers will ask employers to correct these hazards immediately or remove endangered employees.
  • Severe injuries and illnesses: Employers must report these serious incidents as follows:
    • All work-related fatalities within 8 hours.
    • All work-related inpatient hospitalizations, amputations, or losses of an eye within 24 hours.
  • Worker complaints: Allegations of hazards or violations also receive a high priority. Employees may request anonymity when they file complaints.
  • Referrals of hazards: Inspections may be triggered from other federal, state, or local agencies; and individuals, organizations, or the media receive consideration for inspection.
  • Targeted inspections: Inspections aimed at specific high-hazard industries or individual work- places that have experienced high rates of injuries and illnesses also receive priority.
  • Follow-up inspections: Checks for abatement of violations cited during previous inspections are also conducted by the agency in certain circumstances.

Timing and Scope of Inspections

Section 8(a) of the OSH Act provides that OSHA may inspect any workplace during regular working hours and at other reasonable times within such reasonable limits and in a reasonable manner.

Consider using the “reasonable time” requirement to ask for a postponement of an inspection if there is a good reason for doing so. For example, employers have successfully requested the postponement of an inspection when the company safety director was on vacation, when a critical order was nearing the end of production, and when major maintenance and repair work was being performed.

Note that if OSHA is concerned that an employer may use a delay to conceal evidence of a violation, it may request prompt entry. In any event, OSHA instructions to staff permit an employer to request reasonable time (up to about an hour) so that a responsible official may return to the premises to meet the inspector. Seek guidance from your legal counsel.

“Reasonable Limits in a Reasonable Manner”

OSHA also requires that inspections be made “within reasonable limits” and “in a reasonable manner.” There is very little case law to explain these limitations, but employers should be aware of them. By administrative determination, OSHA has announced that it will not conduct inspections of home worksites of telecommuters.

OSHA Inspection Process

OSHA has defined protocols for the types of inspections that it may conduct.

Phone/Fax Investigations

For lower-priority hazards, with permission of a complainant, OSHA may telephone the employer to describe safety and health concerns and follow up with a fax detailing alleged safety and health hazards. The employer must respond in writing within five working days, identifying any problems found and noting corrective actions taken or planned. If the response is adequate and the complainant is satisfied with the response, OSHA generally will not conduct an on-site inspection.

On-Site Inspections

Before conducting an inspection, OSHA compliance officers research the inspection history of a worksite using various data sources, and then review the operations and processes in use and the standards most likely to apply. The officers will gather appropriate personal protective equipment and testing instruments to measure potential hazards.

Step 1: Presentation of Credentials

The on-site inspection begins with the presentation of the compliance officer’s credentials, which include both a photograph and a serial number. Be sure to learn whether or not the compliance officer is a safety specialist or an industrial hygienist, and review the officer’s credentials before sharing company information.

Step 2: Opening Conference

The compliance officer will explain why OSHA selected the workplace for inspection and describe the scope of the inspection, walkaround procedures, employee representation, and employee interviews. You then select a representative to accompany the compliance officer during the inspection. An employee representative may also be present. The compliance officer will consult privately with a reasonable number of employees during the inspection. The compliance officer should also inform you of what the work plan includes and anticipated time to complete the onsite inspection.

Step 3: Walkaround

Following the opening conference, the compliance officer and the company representatives will walk through the portions of the workplace covered by the inspection, looking for hazards that could lead to employee injury or illness. Be sure to accompany the compliance officer at all times and take notes of the work areas that are being inspected. The compliance officer will also review worksite injury and illness records and required OSHA postings. During the walkaround, compliance officers may point out some apparent violations that can be corrected immediately. While the law requires that these hazards must be cited, prompt correction is a sign of good faith on the part of the employer. Compliance officers try to minimize work interruptions during the inspection and will keep confidential any trade secrets they observe.

Be sure to keep copies and a full listing of any documents you provide to the OSHA compliance officer. If any documents requested are outside the scope of the inspection, consult with your designated company official before providing those documents to OSHA. Make sure that the safety management team is briefed at regular intervals (at least daily) regarding the inspection activities.

Step 4: Closing Conference

After the walkaround, the compliance officer will hold a closing conference with the employer and the employee representatives to discuss the findings. The compliance officer will discuss possible courses of action an employer may take following an inspection, which could include an informal conference with OSHA or contesting citations and proposed penalties. The compliance officer will also discuss consultation services and employee rights.

Step 5: Follow-Up

Review the closing conference notes of violations cited by the OSHA compliance officer and list the specific work areas, machines, and other noted issues and develop an action plan for a quick review. Citations must be handled immediately. The failure to contest citations in a timely manner (within 15 working days of receipt) may trigger final penalties that cannot be appealed.

Contesting a Citation

An informal request for conference to obtain clarification to better understand the violations cited and the specific standards that apply may be done prior to formally contesting the citation(s). Consult with counsel and your risk manager first. During the conference, you may:

  • Negotiate and enter into an informal settlement agreement.
  • Discuss ways to correct the violations.
  • Discuss problems with the abatement dates.
  • Discuss problems concerning safety issues with employee(s).
  • Resolve disputed citations/penalties.

Sample notices are available from OSHA. If the employer continues to disagree with the citation or penalty upon conclusion of the informal conference, a Notice of Contest may be filed, which is then reviewed by the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC), a federal agency not associated with OSHA or the Department of Labor that acts as an unbiased party in the review of any contest. Both the employer and employees have the right to participate in the hearing. Any continued appeal beyond the Notice of Contest is escalated to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Advance Preparation Is Critical

Make advance preparation a key part of your safety program. Not only does this work assist you in a smoother and potentially better outcome for a potential OSHA inspection, it also ensures that key personnel are identified, safety hazards are managed, and employees are well-informed and trained. In many cases, your Insurance carrier’s loss control department may have already conducted a visit and noted safety recommendations and resources to ensure compliance. Your carrier and risk management broker are key partners in your safety program compliance.

To best prepare for the possibility of an OSHA inspection, take the following steps now:

  • Self-audit: Conduct an internal audit using the Hazard/Risk Assessment checklist to determine if there are any gaps in your safety programs. Refer to this checklist anytime you add a new location, processes are added, or procedures change.
  • Employee training: Designate and train management and employees who will be representing the company in the event of an inspection in all aspects of your safety program as applicable. Train all employees and supervisory personnel in the actions they should take in the event of an OSHA inspection.