The Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, commonly known as OSHA, ensures safe and healthful working conditions for workers in the United States. OSHA's goals are to prevent injuries, illnesses, and deaths in the workplace by setting and enforcing standards through inspections. An OSHA inspection can occur at any time and without prior warning, so it's imperative employers prepare well in advance.
Review our step-by-step guide below to know what to expect and how to prepare for an OSHA inspection.
What May Lead to an OSHA Inspection?
When an OSHA Compliance Safety and Health Officer (CSHO) knocks on your company’s door, you may wonder, “why are they here?” The agency regulates over seven million businesses nationwide, so there’s often a reason for their visit. OSHA will conduct inspections in the following order:
Imminent Danger Situations – The most hazardous situations take top priority. These situations could cause death or serious physical harm. Employers will be asked to immediately fix the hazardous situation or remove employees at risk of harm.
Severe Injuries and Illnesses – Employers must report 1) all work-related fatalities within 8 hours and 2) all work-related inpatient hospitalizations, amputations, or losses of an eye within 24 hours. A report of this kind will trigger an OSHA response.
Worker Complaints – OSHA will address complaints of hazards or violations. Employees have the right to file a complaint anonymously.
Referrals – Individuals, organizations, federal, state, or local agencies, or even the media may refer OSHA to a business with alleged hazards.
Targeted Inspections – OSHA will conduct inspections at businesses in high-hazard industries or workplaces that have experienced high rates of injuries.
Follow-up Inspections – Reinspection will occur to ensure an issue has been resolved.
Advance Notice From OSHA
OSHA rarely gives employers a warning before they show up. However, there are four conditions under which OSHA will give employers advance notice of an inspection.
- In cases of apparent imminent danger when management needs to fix a condition immediately.
- When the inspection must be after regular business hours or when special preparations are necessary.
- If management and worker representatives are not likely to be on-site unless they have advance notice.
- In other circumstances where the OSHA Area Director thinks a more complete inspection will result, such as in a fatality investigation.
Preparing in Advance
There are a few key items to prepare in advance that will help you handle an OSHA inspection.
Assign a Representative. During the inspection, a selected representative of your company will be allowed to accompany the compliance officer. Know ahead of time who will be the designated representative. They should know where all your company records and policies are located. If they are not available, assign a backup representative.
Conduct Internal Audits and Hazard Assessments. The best way to ensure a safe work environment and avoid receiving a citation from OSHA is to periodically assess your own work environment for hazards and double-check that records are up-to-date. Ensure required postings are clearly displayed in your workplace.
Good Recordkeeping. Documentation is critical. Employers should keep a record of safety training, safety policies, employee complaints, and how those complaints were handled. For an OSHA inspection, have the following documents easily accessible: training records, workers’ comp files, insurance, and third-party audits. However, do not offer up anything that is not asked for; only produce documents or information that is requested.
What to Expect From an On-Site OSHA Inspection
You’ve taken initiative to prepare in advance, so what happens on the day? Each OSHA inspection consists of the same stages. Understanding the steps of an inspection will help you know what to expect.
Presentation of Credentials. Upon arrival, the OSHA inspector will present their credentials. This will include a photograph and serial number. If the inspector does not immediately present them, ask to see their credentials right away. Be sure to verify who they are by calling the nearest federal or state OSHA office.
You may invite the inspector in and allow them to take a seat while you privately notify managers, employees, on-site contractors, and other members of your designated inspection team, that OSHA is present on the property. Remember to always treat an OSHA representative with respect and professionalism. Don’t keep them waiting too long.
Opening Conference. The inspector will explain the reason for their visit with your designated inspection team. If they do not readily provide this information, ask them politely to specify their reason for being here today. Also, be sure to establish whether the inspection will cover the entire facility or only certain areas involving a complaint. During this time, the inspector should also describe the scope of the inspection, walkaround procedures, and employee interviews.
Walkaround. After the opening conference, the designated representative of the organization will accompany the compliance officer around the workplace. If requested by employees, a representative may also attend the walkaround on their behalf. During the walkaround, insist that the inspector not wander off alone.
The inspector will take a tour and examine the equipment, procedures, and hazards that could lead to injury. They'll likely take notes and pictures and may point out violations that can be fixed on the spot. Never argue with an officer on-site. Correct these violations immediately. The officer will take note of these fixes and take your good faith actions into account when assessing citations and fines.
Ask the OSHA representative(s) to follow all PPE and other safety and security procedures during the inspection, and show only the areas they came to inspect. For example, if the officer requests to review an operation near the rear of the building, consider taking them around the outside, rather than through the building. If an officer sees another violation in plain sight, they can legally expand the inspection beyond the original boundaries.
It's recommended to take detailed notes of everything the inspector sees or discusses. Take pictures of everything the inspector photographs. The inspector may also conduct interviews with employees during this time. Be sure your designated representative and employees know to answer questions truthfully.
Closing Conference. Following the walkaround, the OSHA inspector will hold a closing conference with the employer and representative to discuss the findings of the inspection and possible courses of action. Ask questions if there’s something you don’t fully understand.
If a compliance officer does find a violation during the inspection, OSHA has six months from the inspection to issue a citation or fine. The citation will list the violation along with a deadline for making a correction.
If you have a reasonable argument, contest the citation. When OSHA issues a citation, the employer has the right to an informal conference with OSHA to discuss the violation and even a potential opportunity to work out an agreement to resolve the issue. Act quickly – employers have 15 business days to contest a citation, attend an informal meeting, or pay the fine.
A surprise visit from OSHA can be a nerve-wracking experience but being prepared can help create a smooth inspection process and reduce the risk of a citation.