Whether you work in a state covered by federal OSHA or one with its own state-run program, an OSHA inspector may show up at any time to inspect your jobsite. OSHA conducts periodic inspections – as well as consultations, education and training – to protect workers and ensure contractor compliance.
Although it’s not recommended, when an OSHA inspector arrives for a site inspection, employers have the right to deny entry and demand that OSHA obtain a warrant to inspect the premises. If denied, OSHA will typically get a warrant pretty quickly and return to the jobsite with probable cause. Inspectors are required to inform the employer of the reason for the audit. OSHA Compliance Safety and Health Officers (CSHOs) conduct the majority of inspections, though some states have other personnel who can assist with or perform inspections (e.g., OSHA Labor Liaisons).
A safety inspector is a CSHO who specializes in physical hazards or procedural problems, such as inadequate machine guards, stair railings or equipment lockout procedures. An industrial hygienist is a CSHO who specializes in occupational health hazards, such as chemical vapors, asbestos, respirator issues and noise. Safety inspectors and industrial hygienists work together. For example, a safety inspector identifying potential hazards on a construction jobsite may witness exposures to dust clouds and ask for an industrial hygienist to perform some representative personal sampling for respirable crystalline silica on exposed workers.
How Does OSHA Decide Which Workplace to Inspect?
With OSHA’s current staffing levels and budget, it would be impossible to inspect every workplace to ensure safety and health standards are being met. That’s why OSHA is strategic about targeting inspections using the following priorities:
- “Imminent danger” situations, where death or serious physical injury could happen immediately.
- Workplace fatalities and hospitalizations.
- Amputations or loss of an eye.
- Complaints and referrals concerning potentially hazardous conditions.
- Follow-up or monitoring inspections.
- Scheduled inspections. OSHA uses objective factors such as claim history, injury/illness rates and the safety performance of industries to plan scheduled or “routine” inspections. A special emphasis program focusing on a high-hazard industry may also be established within the state or required nationwide by federal OSHA. Construction is an example of a high-hazard industry.
There are three parts to an inspection: the opening conference, the walk-around inspection and the closing conference.
The inspector must outline the reason for and scope of the inspection. They may ask to see injury and illness prevention programs and other required safety programs such as injury and illness logs. Employee representatives (e.g., a union rep) must be included in the opening conference, unless the employer or employees’ representatives request a separate opening conference. The opening conference should outline what to expect during the inspection itself and everyone’s rights and responsibilities, which include:
- Confidentiality. The inspector is required to keep certain information (e.g., processes, blueprints, etc.) confidential to protect businesses. The inspector may also need to have confidential discussions with employees.
- Representation. A company representative and an employee representative may accompany the inspector. The inspector will talk with some employees about safety and health conditions on the job site, especially if they don’t have an authorized representative.
- Participation. By law, employees must be allowed to participate in the inspection and must be paid for this time. They cannot be fired, demoted or otherwise discriminated against if they talk with the inspector, file a complaint about potentially hazardous conditions or exercise any other legal right.
During the inspection, the CSHO will look for any hazards that might endanger employees and will take written notes or pictures. The inspector will also determine compliance with state and federal recordkeeping and posting requirements, including the Job Safety and Health Law poster, which informs employees of their rights under the law. The employer has a right to accompany the inspector and ask questions about how to correct any issues. The CSHO will make an effort to minimize work interruptions during the walk-around inspection, but may take time to interview individual employees.
The inspector will discuss any hazards found during the walk-around, ways to correct the hazards and deadlines for correcting them. During the closing conference, the employer will be informed of any potential fines related to violations and how they can appeal the findings of the inspection. By law, any hazard identified as “serious” carries a mandatory penalty.
What Happens After the Inspection?
The employer will receive a Citation and Notice of Assessment in the mail detailing any violations found, the monetary fines assessed, what must be done to correct the hazards and how long the employer has to correct them. The employer must:
- Immediately notify employees of the Citation and Notice by posting it for three working days or until all violations are corrected (whichever is longer).
- Correct all hazards within the time specified.
- Return the Employer Certification of Abatement form that came with the Citation and Notice once the hazards are corrected.
Employers have the option to request an extension to correct hazards or appeal the length of time allowed to correct hazards. They can also choose to appeal the findings in the Citation and Notice, but must do so in writing within 15 working days. Even during the appeal process, an employer must still correct any “serious” violations by the correction due date, unless they are granted a stay of the abatement date. Employers are typically offered an opportunity for an informal conference with the OSHA Area Director to discuss citations, penalties, abatement dates and other issues relevant to the inspection.
When construction contractors and other employers understand OSHA’s inspection process and their rights and responsibilities within it, they can get down to the business at hand more quickly – correcting potential hazards to ensure the safety and health of workers on their jobsites.
[Travis Parsons is the LHSFNA’s Associate Director of Occupational Safety & Health.]