OSHA – Understanding the Basics and Preparing for an Inspection

When safety managers hear OSHA, they may feel apprehensive and worry about possible inspections. But how much do you actually know about the organization, its aims and its practices? We’ll take a look at the origins of OSHA, the successes it has helped workplaces achieve and how you should interact with the agency should they show up for an inspection.

What is OSHA?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is a federal agency that creates and enforces standards to keep working conditions safe in the U.S. OSHA was created by the Occupational Health and Safety Act in 1970 to help reduce the number of workplace injuries and fatalities, and thus far it has proven pretty effective. In 1970, about 38 workers died on the job every day, and in 2012 that number had been reduced to 12. During that same period, the number of workers in the U.S. nearly doubled.

OSHA has about 2,200 inspectors throughout the country, but the organization performs a number of tasks aside from inspections. In addition to setting and enforcing standards, the organization also assists with compliance by providing consulting services and runs other voluntary programs.

OSHA oversees private businesses throughout the country, either through the federal agency or through state-run programs (approved by the national OSHA). Nearly half of states have state-run programs, so you should familiarize yourself with the way health and safety programs work in your state. There are three main groups of employees not covered by OSHA standards: the self-employed, immediate family members working on a family farm (that doesn’t employ other workers) and public employees. Government workers typically fall under other federal statutes, so while they are not covered by OSHA regulations, their employers still have to comply with rules for safety in the workplace.

OSHA and You

So how does OSHA impact your workplace? In many ways. OSHA standards impact all kinds of safety issues including emergency response, safety signs, lock out/tag out systems, hazard communication and fire prevention. The standards also vary by industry, but fall into four main categories: general industry, maritime, construction and agriculture. Make sure to check specific regulations for your industry to stay safety compliant.

Additionally, the OSH Act requires that employers keep records of all workplace injuries and illnesses. You do not need to submit these to OSHA, but you need to keep them on site for five years in case of an inspection. The only time you need to notify OSHA of an incident is when it involves a fatality or three or more hospitalizations.

When new standards come into effect—which happens periodically when OSHA’s advisory committees deem new regulations necessary—employers may ask for exemptions, called “variances.” These variances are allowed for a few reasons, usually because a facility can’t comply by the effective date of the standard because of a lack of necessary personnel and equipment or because a facility uses alternative, equally effective practices that create a safe work environment. If your facility falls into the first category, you would request a temporary variance. If you have unique practices that you believe should satisfy requirements, you would request a permanent variance. In most cases, though, you will need to find a way to comply with the standards, and not having the money to fix the problems does not count as an adequate reason for a variance.


The OSHA Inspection

OSHA inspection, safety audit

Many employers dread OSHA inspections, but if you strive to have a safe workplace and know what to expect, you should have nothing to worry about. The odds of having an inspection aren’t huge—of the 7 million workplaces covered by OSHA, about 40,000 received federal inspections and 50,000 received state inspections in 2013—but inspections are common enough to warrant preparation.

Let’s take a look at the basics of an inspection: the reasons you might have an inspection, what will happen during the inspection and how to deal with any problems found during the inspection.

Reasons for Inspections

Because OSHA covers about 7 million workplaces, it has to prioritize which ones to visit. Obviously it does not have the ability to inspect them all. Consequently, OSHA focuses on inspecting the most dangerous situations. Five main reasons exist for OSHA inspections:
Imminent Danger – First priority are situations that pose imminent danger, where a worker could be killed or seriously injured by a hazard in the workplace. Usually someone aware of the danger alerts OSHA, and OSHA sends out an inspector as soon as possible. The goal is to intervene and resolve the dangerous issue before anyone gets hurt.
Fatalities/Catastrophes – If a company reports a fatality or group of three or more hospitalizations, OSHA will do an inspection to investigate the incident and see if the accident resulted from a violation of OSHA standards.
Complaints – If an employee observes an unaddressed safety hazard in the workplace, he or she can report it to OSHA (anonymously, if that is what the employee prefers). Other local agencies in the area can also file complaints about alleged violations. Should OSHA believe an inspection is warranted, an inspector will visit the facility.
Planned/Programmed Investigations – OSHA performs routine inspections every year to ensure workplace safety meets standards. Typically, inspectors visit high-hazard industries where the rates of death, injury, illness and exposure to toxic substances are higher.
Follow-up – When a facility is inspected and violations are found, OSHA may return at a later date to make sure the problems have been corrected.

Dealing with an Inspection

Regardless of the reason for an inspection, the procedures will be pretty similar. Keep in mind that you will not usually receive notice of an upcoming inspection, and if you do it will likely be at most 24 hours ahead of time. Consequently, being prepared is key.

Inspections have four main parts:
Presentation of Credentials – The inspector will present credentials, which contain a photo and serial number. Always ask to see these and report to law enforcement any inspector who asks for payment during an inspection (a real inspector will never do this).
Opening Conference – The inspector wants you to understand the inspection process, so he or she will explain the reason for the inspection and the procedures. Your company will select someone to accompany the inspector—decide who this will be ahead of time—and an employee representative will be selected as well.
Tour – The inspector will tour the facility with the chosen representatives. He or she will observe hazards and whether any violations are present. An inspector may point out problems that can quickly be corrected. Employers should correct these issues immediately, though they will still be cited for violations. During the tour the inspector will also look at worksite injury/illness records, assess the company’s health and safety program and talk with employees about their impressions of safety in the facility.
Closing Conference – The inspector will inform the employer and employee representatives of his observations and give a general sense of the findings. At this time you will learn possible courses of action including following up with OSHA’s area office with questions or contesting the findings.

OSHA, safety audit

Violations and Penalties

The results of an OSHA inspection will arrive by certified mail. If your company violated any OSHA standards, you will receive citations explaining what requirements were violated, what the penalties are and how soon corrections to hazards need to be made. You will need to post these citations in the relevant areas until the problems are fixed (or for three days, whichever is longer) so employees are aware of the issues.

OSHA determines the amount of a penalty using a number of different factors. They consider the severity of the violation (i.e. a violation that could lead to death or serious injury will be more costly), whether the company knowingly violated the standard, whether the company has had similar violations in the past and if the company failed to correct a previous violation (known as “failure to abate”). Penalties can range from a minimal amount ($0-$1000) to $70,000 for repeat or willful violations. If you fail to fix a problem after an inspection and OSHA returns to check in, the penalty for failing to abate can be $7000 per day. These violations are costly, but they’re costly for a reason; employees’ safety is on the line, so resolve problems as quickly as possible.

If you feel a violation or penalty is unwarranted, you can appeal the findings or request additional time to comply with changes. Just make sure to do so within 15 days from the time of the citation.

Miscellaneous Questions and Concerns

• Do your company’s processes reveal proprietary information? Don’t worry; an inspector cannot share any information of that nature with anyone (if they do, they can face fines or jail time).
• Should you offer records to an inspector? Provide them if asked, but you don’t need to offer them.
• Are you concerned your safety measures aren’t up to par, but don’t know how to fix them? OSHA coordinates consulting services where experts can come to your facility to help you assess hazards and precautions. During these meetings, you will not risk receiving any violations or penalties, though you will be required to fix problems.
• Are you confused after receiving citations? Meet with an OSHA representative at your local area office. These offices provide all kinds of additional services, too, like training materials and access to guest speakers who can talk to your employees about safety. OSHA can be an educational resource, not just a rule enforcer.

Hopefully you have a better understanding of OSHA and OSHA inspections by now. Knowing the goals and procedures of the organization will help you avoid running into any trouble with the law, and more importantly, it will help you keep employees safe on the job.

Additional Resources