Nobody enjoys an OSHA inspection, and no matter how many times you’ve dealt with the agency, a visit from an inspector can still cause fear and anxiety. Between fines, penalties and bad PR, noncompliance can land even an honest employer in hot water, and it’s important for every organization to stay on top of new regulations and worker complaints.
Fortunately, OSHA itself must follow plenty of rules, and knowing their protocols can help you prepare for an inspection — even when you don’t know they’re coming. The following are a few best practices to follow during (and before) an inspection.
Who Gets Inspected
OSHA won’t always call before they come knocking, but they don’t have the resources to investigate each of the 7 million workplaces they cover every year. To provide for the highest levels of compliance, they prioritize the most hazardous workplaces. From the agency’s own website, their priorities are:
- Imminent danger situations
- Severe injuries and illnesses
- Worker complaints
- Referrals (from other federal, state or local agencies)
- Targeted inspections aimed at high-hazard industries and workplaces
- Follow-up inspections
Could your workplace still be investigated if it doesn’t meet one of these conditions? Yes! Use this list to determine when you’re most likely to undergo an investigation — not to predict how long you can avoid one.
What to Expect
Every OSHA inspection is broken into three phases: an opening conference, a facility walkthrough and a closing conference. During the opening conference, the OSHA agent will discuss the reason for the visit and the focus and scope of the inspection, as well as the procedures for walkarounds, representation and interviews.
During the walkthrough, the inspector looks for hazards and signs of noncompliance within designated areas of the worksite. While they are required to cite any hazards they find, some can be immediately corrected — a sign of good faith on the part of the employer, according to OSHA.
Finally, the closing conference is when the OSHA agent will discuss his or her findings, as well as the employer’s potential courses of action. In some cases, the closing conference is also an opportunity for an informal conference, where an employer can contest citations and proposed penalties.
Create a Team
Your first step in preparing for OSHA is to put together a team that can be assembled quickly during an inspection. Most importantly, you’ll need a greeter who can meet the inspector and review their credentials. There have been many cases in which individuals posed as regulatory officials to gain access to trade secrets and other protected information. Other team members may be responsible for contacting management, communicating with employees, documenting the inspection and restricting access to areas of the worksite outside the scope of investigation.
Designate an Employee Representative
By law, OSHA inspectors must ask for the participation of an employee representative. On a union jobsite, a union official typically will fill this role. If the facility is not organized, the employee safety committee may appoint a representative.
Determine the Reason
Understanding the reason for an inspection will help you communicate more clearly with OSHA personnel. The specific nature of the inspection — complaint-based, fatality-based, media-based, targeted or random, for example — may also help you limit the scope of the walkthrough.
To better understand the reason for an investigation and avoid further scrutiny, obtain a copy of the complaint that triggered the inspection. Do not, however, make any inquiry regarding the employee who filed the complaint. OSHA documentation will not include employees’ names, and employees who file complaints are legally protected from retaliation.
In most cases, an OSHA inspector will not show up with a warrant, and you are within your rights to refuse an inspection until they get one. However, demanding a warrant tends to raise further suspicion. Often, a better course of action is to restrict access until management has arrived. Establish procedures for receptionists and guards, and don’t allow the opening conference to begin until your higher-ups, safety team and inspection team are present.
Limit the Scope
The opening conference is your chance to clearly define the areas of your facility open to inspectors. OSHA is limited to the parts of your operation that gave rise to the investigation, but inspectors have been to known to cite employers for additional violations they happen to observe.
Gather Your Documents
Inspectors often ask to review your incident reports and annual summaries, as well as your lockout tagout logs, training logs and other safety-related documents. Make sure they’re up-to-date! Gather these documents ahead of time, as an inspection begins, so you can have them ready at the agent’s request. You may reduce fines, penalties and future scrutiny if you can prove your due diligence in keeping your workers safe.
Keep Your Own Records
OSHA personnel will document everything they see, but you shouldn’t rely on their records. Equip your inspection team with cameras, and photograph and video the same areas the inspectors do. If you dispute a citation or attempt to have a penalty reduced — or if you just want to improve future safety initiatives — additional documentation will help.
Stay Compliant with a Comprehensive Safety Software System
By following these best practices, you can avoid undue fines and penalties and work productively with OSHA personnel. To stay compliant, protect your workers and avoid inspections altogether, however, it helps to have all of your safety-related documentation in one place.
BasicSafe has an enforcement module available that allows you to track inspection items and search them over time to assess the most commonly reported or cited items. This is particularly important to organizations with multiple locations, as they can see common items across multiple sites across the operation where many inspections have been done and what the results were.d
To learn how a comprehensive safety software suite can help you cost-effectively reduce accidents and illnesses and avoid worker complaints, check out our eBook, Why You’re at Risk Without a Safety Management System.