The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) requires employers to provide a safe work environment for their workers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for creating workplace safety standards and enforcing compliance with the OSH Act.
This Compliance Overview provides a summary of the OSHA inspection process along with tips and reminders that employers should be aware of during an actual inspection.
Tips for Employers
Check inspector credentials
Notify management when inspector arrives
Determine the purpose and scope of the inspection
Be prepared to prove compliance
Get a copy of the complaint, if possible.
Set ground rules for inspection.
Cooperate and be responsive.
Take note of what the inspector documents.
OSHA inspections can be either programmed or unprogrammed. Unprogrammed inspections generally take precedence over programmed ones.
Unprogrammed inspections are usually triggered by particular reports. OSHA gives priority to unprogrammed inspections in the following order: imminent dangers, fatalities or catastrophes, and employee complaints and referrals. OSHA may also conduct an unprogrammed follow-up investigation to determine whether previously cited violations have been corrected.
Programmed inspections are scheduled based on neutral and objective criteria. Programmed inspections typically target high-hazard industries, occupations or health substances. OSHA considers various factors when scheduling programmed inspections, including employer incident rates, citation history and employee exposure to toxic substances.
The scope of an OSHA inspection can be comprehensive or partial. A comprehensive inspection is a complete and thorough inspection of the worksite. During a comprehensive inspection, the compliance officer will evaluate all potentially hazardous areas in the establishment. However, an inspection may be considered comprehensive even though, at the compliance officer’s discretion, not all potentially hazardous conditions or practices are actually inspected.
A partial inspection is usually limited to certain potentially hazardous areas, operations, conditions or practices at the employer’s establishment. However, at his or her discretion, a compliance officer may expand the scope of a limited inspection. The compliance officer will generally make this decision based on the information they gather during the inspection.
Compliance Officer Arrival
Upon arrival, a compliance officer should present his or her credentials. If necessary, employers can contact their local OSHA office to confirm a compliance officer’s authority to conduct the inspection.
A compliance officer has the right to enter an employer’s premises if they have obtained consent from the employer or a warrant ordering the employer to admit the inspector. In either case, employers cannot unreasonably delay an inspection to wait for the arrival of the employer representative (inspectors may wait up to one hour to allow an employer representative to arrive from an off-site location).
Employers can consent to admit a compliance officer and perform a worksite inspection. Employers may also provide partial consent, and allow a compliance officer access only to certain areas of their facilities. Compliance officers will make note of any refusals or partial consent and will report it to OSHA. OSHA may take further action against any refusals, including any legal process it may see fit to obtain access to restricted areas. In sites where multiple employers are present, the compliance officer does not need to obtain consent from all employers present. Consent from just one employer is sufficient to allow the inspector to access the entire worksite.
Compliance officers are not required to ask for an employer’s consent when they have a court-issued warrant. The warrant allows the compliance officer access to the employer’s facilities to conduct an inspection.
Employers that do not provide consent have the right to require compliance officers to obtain a warrant before allowing them access to the premises. As a general practice, few employers actually require warrants, though some employers have done so to delay the start of an inspection. There are, however, some exceptions to the employer’s right to require a warrant. A compliance officer does not need to obtain employer consent or a warrant to access the premises if they can establish:
The existence of a plain view hazard;
That the worksite is an open field or construction site; or
The existence of exigent circumstances.
During the opening conference, compliance officers will discuss with employers:
The purpose of the inspection;
Any complaints filed against the employer, if applicable;
The officers’ right to document evidence (handwritten notes, photos, video and audio recordings);
The advantages of immediate abatement and quick fixes;
The intended scope of the inspection;
A plan for the physical inspection of the worksite;
The audit of employee injury and illness records;
Referring violations not enforced by OSHA to appropriate agencies;
Employer and employee rights during the inspection; and
Any plans for conducting a closing conference.
The walk-around is the most important stage of the inspection. Employer and employee representatives have the right to accompany compliance officers during the walk-around stage of the inspection. During the walk-around, compliance officers will take notes and document all facts pertinent to violations of the OSH Act. In general, compliance officers will also offer limited assistance (as appropriate) on how to reduce or eliminate workplace hazards.
The OSH Act requires compliance officers to maintain the confidentiality of employer trade secrets. Compliance officers should only document evidence involving trade secrets if necessary. Compliance officers must mark trade secret evidence as, “Confidential – Trade Secret,” and keep it separate from other evidence. Compliance officers that violate these requirements are subject to criminal sanctions and removal from office.
As with the opening conference, unless an objection exists, the closing conference is generally a joint conference. However, the closing conference may be conducted in person or over the phone. The inspection and citation process will move forward regardless of whether employers decide to participate in the closing conference.
The compliance officer will document all materials they provide to the employer during the closing conference as well as any discussions that took place. Discussion topics for the closing conference may include:
Employer rights and responsibilities
The strengths and weaknesses of the employer’s safety and health system
The existence of any apparent violations and other issues found during the inspection
Any plans for subsequent conferences, meetings and discussions
The closing conference is not the time for employers to debate or argue possible citations with the compliance officer. Employers should take sufficient time during the closing conference to understand the inspector’s findings and any possible consequences. Employers should also discuss any abatements completed during the inspection or any plans to correct issues in the near future.
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