For businesses operating in industries with inherent safety risks, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspection can be a daunting prospect. However, understanding what to expect during an OSHA inspection and preparing accordingly can alleviate anxiety and ensure a smoother process. Here we will discuss the elements of an OSHA inspection along with insights on how businesses can proactively prepare for and navigate this regulatory process.

OSHA has jurisdiction over approximately 7 million worksites. With so many locations, this requires them to focus their inspection resources on the most hazardous workplaces. Their top priority is imminent danger situations, followed by responding to severe injuries and fatalities, worker complaints and targeted inspections. Occasionally, OSHA will open an investigation via phone/letter to the business if the complaint or hazard is deemed “lower priority”. In these situations, the employer must respond in writing within 5 working days, identifying any problems found and noting corrective actions taken or planned. If the response is adequate and the complainant is satisfied with a response, OSHA generally will not conduct an on-site inspection. As an example, I was once contacted by OSHA related to a complaint of a bad smell in the trash. To respond, we relocated the trash barrel outside the building. We cleaned the area inside where the trash was previously held. I responded to OSHA with our corrective measures, who then contacted the complainant to ensure satisfaction. OSHA was satisfied with the response and closed the investigation without visiting the work site.

However, businesses more commonly encounter an OSHA inspection without any prior notice. Prior to visiting a business, OSHA will do a bit of homework. They will review the history of the 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. OSHA will then arrive at the worksite, present their credentials, and conduct an opening conference. They will explain why the worksite is being inspected, the scope of the inspection, walkaround procedures, employee representation and employee interview procedures. It is important to understand that all workers onsite are subject to inspection, not just the host facility. This is often how service contractors can become involved and even a focus of the inspection.

Before OSHA begins their walkaround the site, the business should designate an individual to interact with the OSHA inspector during the inspection process. This representative should be knowledgeable about the workplace, safety procedures, and capable of effectively communicating with the inspector. The representative should take photos and video of everything that the inspector is photographing and videotaping. This can be critical in the appeals process if OSHA issues a citation. Make sure you have your own evidence.

During the walkaround portion of the inspection, OSHA will likely require private interviews of employees. It is generally recognized that most OSHA citations arise during interviews with management and hourly employees. Management is normally prohibited from sitting in on these interviews. The
inspector will ask questions such as the nature of the employees’ work, their daily tasks/responsibilities, length of employment, personal protective equipment (PPE) used, their awareness of hazards and the training they have received. Unfortunately, a lot of confusion has occurred over the respective rights of OSHA, the employer, and the employees. Employers often fail to advise employees of their rights during such interviews and these rights are never exercised. If the employee gives inaccurate, incomplete, or confusing responses, these statements can be the basis for civil citations with monetary penalties, or worse, criminal liability. Not to mention the citations that can be issued to the employer.

Here are some employee/employer rights that each employer should make sure everyone involved is aware of:

Every Employee:

• Has a right to a private one-on-one interview with the compliance officer which is confidential and is considered “protected activity.” The employee cannot suffer any “adverse action” from the employer for exercising this right. The compliance officer cannot disclose the contents of the interview.
• Has a right to refuse to be interviewed by the compliance officer. In other words, an employee cannot be forced to have a private one-on-one interview. These interviews are totally voluntary. If the employee declines to be interviewed (and the employee need not give any reason for the decision) the agency will have to obtain a subpoena to require the interview. If the agency obtains a subpoena, the employee has the full scope of rights to respond, including the right to counsel.
• Has a right to decline to have a one-on-one private interview, the right to have a person of their choice attend the interview and, if the compliance officer refuses to allow this person to attend, decline to be interviewed. Some employees feel comfortable being interviewed if they have another person present during the interview. Again, if the compliance officer refuses to allow this other person to attend, the employee can decline the interview.
• Has a right to end the interview at any time for any reason. Since the interview is completely voluntary (unless OSHA subpoenaed the employee) the employee can end the interview at any time and can leave without any explanation.
• Has a right to refuse to sign a statement, be tape recorded or photographed.
• Has the right to refuse to provide any private contact information, such as home address and telephone number.
• Has the right to require the interview to occur at the workplace. 

Every Employer:

• Has the right to inform its employees of their rights during the inspection.
• Must allow the employee to be interviewed by OSHA if the employee consents.
• Has the right to participate in non-private employee interviews (those attended by a third party, such as a union representative) and, if the compliance officer refuses, require that the interviews occur on non-paid work time.
• Has the right to attend interviews of employer management representatives since they are agents of the employer.
• Has the right to end the interviews if the interviews become disruptive, that is, unreasonably interfere with ongoing work, or become confrontational, in which case the employer should consult legal counsel regarding the termination of the inspection.

Following the inspection, OSHA will likely require follow-up information and documents to be provided to them in a short timeframe. It is important to always have these materials up to date and readily available in the event of an inspection.

Here are some examples of what you may be asked to provide:

1. A list of employees that work at the worksite.
2. Copies of current and prior years’ OSHA 300, 300A, and 301 logs.
3. A list of PPE issued by the company to employees working at the location.
4. Copies of Occupational Exposure Sampling reports. This could be for any number of hazardous conditions including noise exposure, respirable dusts, silica, heavy metals or chemical exposure.
5. A copy of the company’s General Safety and Health Program. This would include all applicable programs such as the hazard communication program, respiratory protection program, lockout tagout program, machine guarding program, and PPE hazard assessments.
6. A list of employees included in a Medical Surveillance Program and their medical surveillance report or results for these employees.
7. A list of employees in the Respiratory Protection Program considered having mandatory use of respirators, and when is that mandatory use, if not explained in the Respiratory Protection Program. A copy of their fit test reports will likely also be required.
8. Job Hazard Analysis for procedures the OSHA inspector observed while onsite.
9. Copies of all safety and health training documentation; including contents and description of the training along with sign-in sheets.
10. A copy of documents for progressive disciplinary program and enforcement for employees who do not follow the safety and health program.

The inspection will end with a closing conference where the findings will be discussed. When an inspector finds violations of OSHA standards or serious hazards, OSHA may issue citations and fines. OSHA must issue a citation and proposed penalty within six months of the violation’s occurrence. Citations describe OSHA requirements allegedly violated, list any proposed penalties, and give a deadline for correcting the alleged hazards. Violations are categorized as willful, serious, other-than-serious, de minimis, failure to abate, and repeated. In settling a penalty, OSHA has a policy of reducing penalties for small employers and those acting in good faith. After a citation is issued, the employer has an opportunity for an informal conference with the OSHA Area Director to discuss citations, penalties, and abatement dates. Employers have 15 working days after the receipt of citations and proposed penalties to formally contest the alleged violations and/or penalties by sending a written notice to the Area Director. OSHA citations are not only costly, they can also impact an organization’s opportunity for future business. Employers should always negotiate potential citations to see if they can be reduced or eliminated.

Now that we have discussed what to expect during an OSHA investigation, lets review how to be best prepared. Preparing for an OSHA inspection can help businesses streamline the process and demonstrate a commitment to workplace safety.

Here are some proactive preparation tips:

Conduct Internal Audits– Regularly conduct internal audits to identify and address potential safety hazards before an OSHA inspection occurs. This proactive approach can help mitigate risks and demonstrate a commitment to continuous improvement.

Train Employees– Ensure that employees receive adequate safety training and are knowledgeable about workplace safety procedures. Well-trained employees not only contribute to a safer work environment but also enhance the organization’s readiness for an OSHA inspection.

Maintain Accurate Records– Keep thorough records of safety training, incident reports, safety inspections, and corrective actions taken. Accurate documentation can help demonstrate compliance with OSHA standards and facilitate the inspection process.

Designate a Point of Contact– Designate a point of contact within the organization to liaise with the OSHA inspector during the inspection process. This individual should be prepared to accompany the inspector during the walkaround inspection and provide relevant information as needed.

Address Identified Hazards Promptly– Take prompt action to address any hazards identified during internal audits or previous inspections. Proactively addressing safety concerns demonstrates a commitment to employee well-being and can help minimize potential penalties.

While an OSHA inspection can be a source of concern for business, proactive preparation and adherence to safety regulations can help streamline the process and minimize potential risks. By understanding what to expect during an inspection, conducting internal audits, training employees, maintaining accurate records, and promptly addressing safety hazards, organizations can demonstrate a commitment to workplace safety and navigate OSHA inspections with confidence. Remember, compliance with safety regulations is not only a legal requirement but also a fundamental aspect of ensuring the health and well-being of employees.