Federal agencies Inspections Infographics

Preparing for an OSHA inspection

Do you know what to do if OSHA pays a surprise visit?

OSH Inspection slider
Photo: Ian Palmer

Key points

  • Confirm the identity of the OSHA compliance officer, and find out the scope of the inspection.
  • The inspection will mostly entail a compliance officer taking photographs and notes, as well as asking questions of the employer and employees.
  • The employer will learn from the compliance officer what hazards were found during the inspection and should fix those hazards as soon as possible.

Federal and state agencies conduct nearly 100,000 inspections every year, making the odds of your worksite being inspected fairly low. But just as safety professionals need to ensure a worksite is prepared to identify and abate even the rarest of safety hazards, employers always should be ready for the possibility of an OSHA inspection.

“You may not get an inspection in your facility for the next 30 years. However, you always have to be ready,” said Rick Kaletsky, a Connecticut-based consultant and former OSHA compliance officer.

Kaletsky, who has written a book about preparing for and responding to OSHA inspections, notes that OSHA can show up at virtually any moment, and employers in most cases will not receive advance notice of the visit.

Knowing what happens during an OSHA inspection and what to do during one can ensure things run smoothly – for both your company and the inspector.

What prompts an OSHA inspection?

Many different circumstances can prompt an OSHA inspection, ranging from a workplace death to mere chance. The following are some of the reasons why OSHA may inspect your facility:

  • Catastrophes and fatalities
  • Employee complaints
  • Referrals, which can come from any entity, including anothyer government agency
  • Programmed inspections, in which worksites are randomly selected, or based on emphasis programs, injury rates or previous citations
  • Follow-up inspections

Source: OSHA

When OSHA knocks ...

Before OSHA arrives, establish a procedure you will follow if an inspector shows up, recommends JoAnn Dankert, senior consultant with the National Safety Council.

Your plan should identify a person at your facility, such as the safety manager or the owner, who will be responsible for escorting the inspector. Select a meeting space for opening and closing conferences to take place. An employee representative also will be allowed to attend these conferences and the walkaround. At organized sites, a union contract will spell out who that representative may be; in other situations, a member of the safety committee could join the process.

Have a plan B in place in the event your safety point person is not at the worksite the day an inspector visits, Dankert said. For example, train another employee on the safety procedures and how to show the inspector around the facility.

Some inspectors will be dressed casually. Others may dress more formally when they arrive, and then change into more appropriate clothes, such as a jumpsuit, for the inspection. To make sure you’re dealing with a bona fide OSHA inspector, ask to see the person’s identification. The ID will include the inspector’s photo, name and office; it will not be a badge. Write down the inspector’s name and office. If you’re still unsure of whether the inspector is from the government, Kaletsky suggests calling the local OSHA office to check. Look up the phone number yourself – don’t rely on a number provided by the potential impostor.

View the full infographic.

Setting the scene

Once you have confirmed that the compliance officer is from OSHA, he or she will go over the specifics of the inspection. Known as an opening conference, the inspector will explain what prompted the inspection (see “What prompts an OSHA inspection?”) and may hand over certain documents, such as a copy of a complaint with the complainant’s identifying information removed. Employers will learn about their rights, including how to contest potential citations.

The parameters of the inspection will be explained, including what machines or procedures will be observed. The inspector also will ask for basic information about the facility, including:

  • Type of work performed
  • Number of employees
  • Names of those in charge
  • Contact information

The length of an OSHA inspection will depend on the focus and size of the facility – it could take anywhere from one day to multiple weeks.

The inspector will request certain files, such as injury and illness logs, and you will be expected to produce them in a reasonable amount of time. “When you come across as knowledgeable and organized and can produce documents, I think they have the opinion of, ‘Hey, this group has its act together,’” Dankert said.

On the flip side, unorganized or inaccurate documents can lead to problems. Dankert – who once considered becoming a compliance officer and spent several weeks training with OSHA – visited a machine plant as part of a special emphasis program inspection. The visit started very specific – looking at amputation hazards – but it quickly turned into a comprehensive, wall-to-wall inspection when OSHA learned the employer had failed to record an amputation on its injury log.

Mind your manners

Conduct yourself in a professional manner when in the presence of the compliance officer, and keep your cool during the entire inspection process. “They aren’t going to let you buy them lunch, but if you’re nice to them, they probably will be nice to you,” Dankert said. “If you’re adversarial toward them, they will probably take a hard stance.”

If the compliance officer becomes confrontational or gets out of line, remain calm and call the inspector’s office, advises John Newquist, an Illinois-based consultant and former OSHA assistant regional administrator.

Feel free to ask the inspector to postpone the inspection if he or she shows up at an inconvenient time, such as when production is under deadline pressure and it would be difficult to make accommodations, Kaletsky said. But keep in mind that this would be a short-term solution, and the compliance officer may not agree to the postponement. Even if the inspector is willing to put off the walkaround, he or she likely will still request various files and want to take a quick look around.

An employer has the right to refuse entry to an OSHA inspector. However, experts told Safety+Health that OSHA can easily acquire either a warrant or subpoena.

> Next: Walkaround, employee interviews and closing conference

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