OSHA – the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – is a federal agency charged with creating and enforcing safe and healthy work conditions in businesses across the U.S. OSHA standards focus on emergency communications and response, fire prevention, safety notices, and education. They are charged with upholding the requirement that all employers to keep records of workplace illnesses and injuries. (These records don’t have to be submitted to OSHA but employers must keep them on-site for five years in the event of an OSHA inspection.)
According to “OSHA Fact Sheet: OSHA Inspections,” the agency prioritizes its inspection resources on the most hazardous workplaces in this order:
- Imminent Danger. Workplace hazards that post a threat of death or serious physical harm to employees.
- Fatalities and catastrophes. Any incident involving the death or hospitalization of three or more employees.
- Complaints. An allegation of serious hazards or health and safety violations reported by an employee (anonymity is an option).
- Follow-ups. Inspection of facilities to determine that a previously reported problem has been corrected.
- Planned or regularly programmed investigations. Routine inspections of “high-hazard industries or individual workplaces that have experienced high rates of injuries and illnesses.”
OSHA inspections generally consist of four parts:
Presentation of credentials. The OSHA compliance officer presents his or her credentials (including photograph and serial number).
Opening conference. The OSHA compliance officer meets with the employer to get general information about both the business and its safety and health program. Among the possible areas of inquiry:
- Ways in which information about health and safety policies are communicated to workers
- Methods of enforcing safety and health regulations
- The process by which the business conducts an accident investigation and whether new preventative measures are implemented as a result of that investigation
- Types of health and accident prevention training programs in place
- If an “OSHA Job Safety and Health: It’s the Law” poster is prominently displayed in the workplace
The OSHA compliance officer is obligated by law to explain the reasons behind the inspection, as well as the scope and procedures of the investigation.
The walkaround. Also known as an “inspection tour” or “walkthrough,” the OSHA inspector-led walkaround focuses on those areas of the workplace covered by the inspection, making sure that conditions meet the standards set by the agency (such as those involving employee exposure to physical or chemical hazards). An employer representative, as well as an authorized employee representative, may accompany the compliance officer on the walkaround.
In some cases, apparent safety or health violations may be immediately corrected. According to the OSHA Fact Sheet: “While the law requires that these hazards must still be cited, prompt correction is a sign of good faith on the part of the employer. Compliance officers try to minimize work interruptions during the inspection and will keep confidential any trade secrets they observe.”
The closing conference. The OSHA inspection concludes with a meeting to discuss the findings with the employer and employee representatives. During this closing conference, alleged violations are described and potential corrective steps explored.
After the OSHA inspection process is completed, the results are delivered to the employer by certified mail. If OSHA determines that violations have taken place, it will issue a citation and suggested penalty within six months of that violation’s occurrence. Serious penalties may reach up to $7,000 (for a serious violation) and up to $70,000 (for willful or repeated violations).
Businesses are obligated to post a copy of each OSHA citation “at or near the place a violation occurred, for three days or until the violation is abated, whichever is longer.”
OSHA offers employers the chance to appeal a citation through an informal conference with the OSHA Area Director. Employers may also formally contest the alleged violations and penalties within 15 days of receiving the citation. An OSHA Review Commission then makes a final determination.