What is OSHA: Topic 5 - How are OSHA inspections conducted?
A. Inspection Priorities
The OSH Act authorizes OSHA compliance safety and health officers (CSHOs) to conduct workplace inspections at reasonable times. OSHA conducts inspections without advance notice, except in rare circumstances (for example, when there is a report of an Imminent Danger). In fact, anyone who tells an employer about an OSHA inspection in advance can receive fines and a jail term.
Since not all eight million worksites covered by OSHA can be inspected, the agency has a system of inspection priorities.
- Imminent Danger has top priority. This is a condition where there is reasonable certainty a danger exists that can be expected to cause death or serious physical harm immediately (or before the danger can be removed through normal enforcement). An example could be workers working in an unstable trench that has no shoring or sloping. In such cases, OSHA may contact the employer and try to have workers removed from the danger right away. In any case, a CSHO will make an inspection, no later than one day after the report was received.
- Fatalities and Catastrophes are next in priority. As we learned earlier, employers must report to OSHA any worker fatality or the hospitalization of three or more employees. OSHA starts these investigations as soon as possible after getting the report. CSHOs gather evidence and interview the employer, workers, and others to determine the causes of the event and whether violations occurred.
- Complaints and Referrals are OSHA’s third priority. A worker or worker representative can file a complaint about a safety or health hazard in the workplace. Generally, it is necessary for the complaint to be written and signed for OSHA to conduct an inspection. In other cases, OSHA may contact the employer by phone, email or fax. Referrals usually are from a government agency, such as NIOSH or a local health department. They are handled the same way as complaints.
- Programmed Inspections are the fourth priority. These inspections cover industries and employers with high injury and illness rates, specific hazards, or other exposures. There may also be special emphasis programs in just one OSHA region or certain area offices, based on knowledge of local industry hazards.
OSHA also conducts Follow-up and Monitoring Inspections. These inspections are made as needed, and take priority over Programmed Inspections. A follow-up is made to see if violations cited on an earlier inspection were fixed. Monitoring inspections are made to make sure hazards are being corrected and workers are protected whenever a long period of time is needed for a hazard to be fixed.
B. Stages of an Inspection
There are four major stages of an OSHA inspection: Presenting Credentials; the Opening Conference; the Walkaround; and the Closing Conference.
1. Presenting Credentials
When arriving at the workplace, the CSHO finds out who is in charge and presents his or her credentials. An employer can require OSHA to get a warrant before an inspection is made.
2. Opening Conference
The CSHO finds out if workers are represented and, if so, makes sure that the worker representative participates in all phases of the inspection. If the employer or worker representative objects to a joint conference, separate conferences are held.
The opening conference is generally brief so that the CSHO may quickly start the walkaround.
In the opening conference, the CSHO:
- Explains why OSHA selected the worksite for inspection;
- Obtains information about the company, including a copy of the hazard assessment to see what personal protective equipment is necessary;
- Explains the purpose of the visit, the scope of the inspection, walkaround procedures, worker representation, private worker interviews, and the closing conference; and
- Determines whether the facility falls under any inspection exemption through a voluntary compliance program (for example, if an OSHA-funded consultation visit is in progress).
At the start of the inspection, the CSHO checks the injury and illness records. The CSHO also checks that the OSHA poster is displayed and that the OSHA Summary of Injuries and Illnesses is posted from February 1 to April 30 each year. Other records related to safety and health issues may be requested.
3. The Walkaround
After the opening conference, the CSHO, along with the employer and worker representatives, proceed through the workplace, inspecting work areas for potentially hazardous working conditions. Apparent violations are brought to the attention of employer and worker representatives as the CSHO observes and documents them. The CSHO may also interview workers, take photographs or video, and monitor worker exposure to noise, air contaminants, or other substances. The CSHO will conduct all worker interviews in private, although workers may request that a union representative be present.
4. Closing Conference
After the walkaround, the CSHO holds a closing conference with the employer and the worker representatives, either jointly or separately. When the employer does not want to have a joint conference, the CSHO will normally hold the conference with the worker representative first, so that worker input is received before employers are informed of proposed citations.
During the closing conference, apparent violations that have been observed on the walkaround and estimated times for correction are discussed. Employers are informed of their rights and responsibilities related to the inspection. Both employer and worker representatives are told of their rights to take part in any future meetings and their contest rights. No citations are given out at this time. They are sent in the mail at a later date (no later than 6 months after the inspection).
C. Citations and Penalties
The CSHO takes the findings back to the office and writes up a report. The Area Director reviews it and makes the final decision about the citations and penalties.
Citations inform the employer and workers of:
- Regulations and standards the employer allegedly violated;
- Any hazardous working conditions covered by the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause;
- The proposed length of time set for abatement of hazards; and
- Any proposed penalties.
Citations are sent by certified mail to the facility. The employer must post a copy of each citation at or near the place the violation occurred for 3 days or until it is fixed. Employers must also inform workers and their representatives of the correction they make.
Penalties are based on violation type. OSHA may cite the following violations and propose the following penalties:
OSHA may also assess penalties to employers for the following:
- Failure to Abate. OSHA may propose an additional penalty of up to $7,000 for each day an employer fails to correct a previously cited violation beyond the required date.
- Falsifying Information. Under the OSH Act, an employer providing false information to OSHA can receive a fine of up to $10,000 or up to 6 months in jail, or both.
- Violation of Posting. The employer has to post citations and abatement verification for three days or until the hazard is corrected. The posting has to be near the violation or at a central location. Failure to follow these instructions can result in a penalty of up to $7,000 for each violation.
OSHA may adjust a penalty downward depending on the gravity of the violation, the employer's good faith (efforts to comply with the Act), history of previous violations, and size of business.
D. Appeals Process
Employers and workers each have rights to disagree with (or appeal) parts of an OSHA citation. Workers and their representatives may request an informal conference with OSHA to discuss the inspection, citations, penalties or a notice of contest (if filed by the employer). Workers may also contest the abatement time for any violation and an employer's petition for modification of abatement (PMA), but they cannot contest citations or penalties. If you, as a worker, plan to contest an abatement time, you should provide information to support your position.
The employer has more rights than workers related to citations. Employers may request an informal conference with OSHA to discuss the case. They can also reach a settlement agreement with OSHA that adjusts citations and penalties in order to avoid prolonged legal disputes.
If an employer decides to contest the citation, the abatement date, and/or the proposed penalty, this must be done, in writing, within the 15-working day contest period. The area director forwards the notice of contest to the Occupational Safety and Health
Review Commission (OSHRC). An administrative law judge decides the case.
Both workers and the employer have the right to participate in the hearing and request a further review of the judge's decision by the commission.