What happens during OSHA inspections?

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OSHA inspections are unannounced. Here’s the process they follow.

  1. With jurisdiction over seven million worksites, here’s how OSHA prioritizes its inspections and investigations.
  2. Imminent danger situations and severe injuries or illnesses take top priority for an on-site visit.
  3. Lower priority hazard investigation may be conducted by phone.
  4. Rarely does OSHA conduct inspections with advance notice. However, employers have the right to require compliance officers to obtain an inspection warrant before entering the worksite.

The goal of OSHA inspections and investigations is to ensure compliance with OSHA requirements, helping employers and workers reduce on-the-job hazards and prevent injuries, illnesses, and deaths. OSHA provides a fact sheet that explains what employers and workers can expect during safety and health inspections.

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How are OSHA inspections decided?

OSHA has jurisdiction over approximately seven million worksites, so they must prioritize their inspections based on the most hazardous workplaces. Typically, this is their order of priority:

  1. Imminent danger situations—hazards that could cause death or serious physical harm. Compliance officers will ask employers to correct these hazards immediately or remove endangered employees.
  2. Severe injuries and illnesses—employers must report all work-related fatalities within 8 hours and all work-related inpatient hospitalizations, amputations or losses of an eye within 24 hours.
  3. Worker complaints—allegations of hazards or violations also receive a high priority. Employees may request anonymity when they file complaints.
  4. Referrals of hazards from other federal, state or local agencies, individuals, organizations or the media receive consideration for inspection.
  5. Targeted inspections aimed at specific high-hazard industries or individual workplaces that have experienced high rates of injuries and illnesses.
  6. Follow-up inspections to ensure abatement of violations cited during previous OSHA inspections are conducted in certain circumstances.

Rarely does OSHA conduct inspections with advance notice. However, employers have the right to require compliance officers to obtain an inspection warrant before entering the worksite.

Phone or fax investigations

For lower-priority hazards, with permission of a complainant, OSHA may telephone the employer to describe safety and health concerns, following up with a fax providing details on 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, review the operations and processes in use and the standards most likely to apply. They gather appropriate personal protective equipment and testing instruments to measure potential hazards.

The on-site inspection begins with the presentation of the compliance officer’s credentials, which include both a photograph and a serial number. The compliance officer will then explain why OSHA selected the workplace for inspection and describe the scope of the inspection, walkaround procedures, employee representation and employee interviews.

The employer then selects a representative to accompany the compliance officer during the inspection. An authorized representative of the employees, if any, also has the right to accompany an inspector. The compliance officer will consult privately with a reasonable number of employees during the inspection.

At this point, the walk-around begins. The compliance officer and the representatives will walk through the portions of the workplace covered by the inspection, inspecting for hazards that could lead to employee injury or illness. The compliance officer will also review worksite injury and illness records and the posting of the official OSHA poster.

Compliance officers may point out some apparent violations that can be corrected immediately. While the law requires that these hazards must still 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 observed.

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After the walkaround, the compliance officer will confer with the employer and the employee representatives to discuss findings. They will also 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, along with consultation services and employee rights.

Citations and penalties

When an inspector finds violations of OSHA standards or serious hazards, OSHA may issue citations and fines, which must be sent to the employer within six months of the violation’s occurrence. Citations describe alleged OSHA violations, list any proposed penalties, and give a deadline for correcting the alleged hazards. OSHA groups violations in six categories:

  • willful
  • serious
  • other-than-serious
  • de minimis (too minor to consider)
  • failure to abate
  • repeated

OSHA has a policy of reducing penalties for small employers and those acting in good faith. For serious violations, OSHA may also reduce the proposed penalty based on the gravity of the alleged violation. No good faith adjustment will be made for alleged willful violations. View OSHA’s details on penalty ranges.

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When OSHA issues a citation, it also offers the employer an opportunity for an informal conference with the OSHA Area Director to discuss citations, penalties, abatement dates, or any other information pertinent to the inspection. The agency and the employer may work out a settlement agreement to resolve the matter and to eliminate the hazard. OSHA’s primary goal is correcting hazards and maintaining compliance rather than issuing citations or collecting penalties.

An employer can also contest the citation. Employers have 15 working days after receipt of citations and proposed penalties to formally contest the alleged violations and/ or penalties by sending a written notice to the Area Director, who forwards the contest to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission for independent review. Citations, penalties and abatement dates not challenged by the employer or settled become a final order of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.