How to Survive an OSHA Inspection

Each year OSHA conducts around 50,000 workplace inspections. These investigations are typically triggered by an accident at the workplace, an employee complaint or an OSHA initiated industry specific safety blitz.

While the odds of a workplace being inspected are less than 1 percent, it is vital for business owners to understand how to navigate the four steps of an inspection.

Step 1 Opening Conference

During the opening conference the OSHA inspector will meet with a company’s representative to explain the purpose and reason for the visit. If a company has a union representative they also take part in the investigation.

During this phase of the investigation the employer’s representative needs to inform the inspector if the employer is participating in any OSHA compliance programs or if the company has received any safety compliance exceptions from OSHA.

The representative should also ask the inspector the scope of the investigation and to provide a copy of the standards that will apply to the inspection. This material will help define the focus on an inspection, so the representative can appropriately guide the inspector.

If the inspection is the result of an employee complaint the representative should ask for a copy of the complaint. This copy will typically redact the complainant’s name to preserve anonymity.

Step 2 the Inspection

Once the opening conference is completed the inspector will proceed to the inspection. The inspection typically consist of two parts: a walk around and an inspection of records. The investigator will determine in what part of the business the inspection will begin, where they wish to go and the length of the inspection.

The inspector may also ask to speak to employees and is allowed to do so as long as it does not unduly interfere with their work.

During the inspection the employer representative should provide any information to the inspector they request; however, don’t volunteer information that is not requested. There is no reason to draw light to something that is not part of the inspection.

While conducting the investigation the inspector may take photographs, instrument readings, air samples, spill samples, and other measurements. The company’s representative should take duplicate photos and samples and record the same readings and measurements for later comparison, if practical.

If during the inspection the investigator begins to deviate from the scope of the evaluation, the company representative may point out this deviation and ask the purpose of the expansion. Also if an inspector is hostile, abusive or attempts to exceed the parameters specifically set forth in a warrant, an employer should immediately consult with legal counsel about requesting that the inspection be adjourned pending a meeting with the area director or for other possible legal action before the walkabout continues.

Once the walk around is completed the investigator will examine the company’s records to ensure compliance with OSHA regulations. These include incident records of injuries, illnesses, fatalities, and exposures to any toxic or hazardous substances. The inspector will also examine the company's, hazard communications program, safety data sheets (SDS) and training records.
A company should keep all this material in one place for ease of inspection. Most records need to be kept on file for a minimum of three years, even if an employee no longer works for a company.

Step 3 Closing Conference

Once the inspection is completed the investigator will host a meeting with those who attended the initial conference.

OSHA’s representative during this meeting will discuss "apparent violations" and ways to correct hazards, deadlines, and possible fines. A second closing conference may be held if needed information, such as sampling results, was not initially available.

If the company representative sees something was overlooked regarding these areas of deficiency the company representative should provide it to the inspector.

In addition to “apparent violations” the OSHA investigator will adise that:

  • The employer must not discriminate against employees for health and safety activity.
  • If the employer contests an OSHA citation, the employees have a right to elect "party status” before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (an independent agency).
  • They must be notified by the employer if the employer files a notice of contest or a petition for modification of an abatement date.
  • They have a right to contest the time OSHA allows the employer for correcting a hazard. (Employees, unlike employers, cannot contest other aspects of the citation before the Review Commission). A contest must be in writing and must be filed within 15 working days after receipt of the citation.

Once the inspector has left the employer representative should debrief everyone who was involved in the inspection, and should transcribe his notes while his memory is fresh.

Step 4 Citations

OSHA has up to six months following the investigation to issue citations and financial penalties If a citation is received, it must be promptly posted, and the employer should schedule an informal conference with OSHA. Counsel should be contacted immediately, because a citation must be contested within 15 working days. Violations that are not contested should be remedied within the abatement period listed on the citation.

Designate an Employee Representative

To ensure preparedness for an OSHA inspection all companies need to have a designated person appointed as the OSHA inspection representative. This person is typically a safety coordinator for an employer and will have knowledge of the following:

  • OSHA rules governing the employer
  • Inspection procedures
  • Layout of the workplace
  • Locations of all safety records
  • Knowledge of company safety policies
  • Others needed to be involved in inspections

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