When OSHA Visits: What to Expect

Politicians and captains of industry quietly live in fear that one day, they’ll open their office doors, and an investigative TV crew will be waiting to talk with them.

Managers of construction sites, industrial companies, and contracting crews often share a similar terror. Only in their case, the unexpected visitor is an inspector from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Is their terror justified? Probably not. As intimidating as a site visit from OSHA can be, a company with a healthy safety culture and good recordkeeping has little to fear.

If you haven’t already been the target of an inspection, don’t be surprised when there’s a knock on your door. But that doesn’t mean that paranoia is justified. Our professionals frequently interact with OSHA’s staff, and the vast majority of those conversations are positive and productive. Clients hire us to manage safety in their facilities and on their sites, and we make sure that they comply with all relevant requirements. OSHA’s role is to verify that everyone is doing what they’re supposed to be doing — and if our clients are following our counsel, the inspectors aren’t likely to find substantial violations.

Beyond doing the right things where safety is concerned, the key to minimizing stress during OSHA inspections is to have a solid understanding of your rights and responsibilities before, during, and after the inspection.

How inspections begin

Typically, OSHA’s inspectors will arrive at your location during normal business hours with no advance notice. They’ll find the individual who is in charge and present their credentials. If the right person isn’t there, they will try to contact him or her, but if there is a delay, they may go ahead and begin the inspection.

The first step is a conference at which the inspector will explain the scope of the inspection. It’s a good idea to have supervisory staff and employee representatives at the conference, to ensure that everyone understands what is happening. If someone has filed a complaint with OSHA, the inspector will share a copy (although the name of the complainant will be redacted).

Be aware that you do have the legal right to refuse an inspection, or to block access to specific records. However, the inspector can then obtain a warrant or subpoena to see what you don’t want to show — and all your action may do is encourage the inspector to look more deeply.

During the inspection

While the inspector is at work, you’re allowed to have someone accompany him or her through your facility. That’s a good idea for a couple reasons. First, the inspector will be able to get faster answers to any questions or concerns that arise. Second, and even more important, you’ll be able to see what the inspector is looking for and how he or she goes about the process. That will help you and your staff prepare for future inspections.

You may see the inspector document specific items with photographs or videos. While that’s allowed, if anything being recorded may be confidential (such as processes that involve trade secrets), you can ask the inspector to note that on the materials, so they will not be released to anyone outside OSHA.

If the inspector begins to go beyond the scope that was discussed at the conference, you can ask for another conference, at which the inspector will have to explain the reasoning for the expanded scope. Once again, you can refuse to permit it (but once again, the inspector will not hesitate to obtain a subpoena or warrant).

Ending the inspection

Once the inspection has been completed, the inspector will hold a closing conference. He or she will identify any violations that were observed. If any citations need to be issued, they will have to be reviewed by the inspector’s supervisor, who also will determine the amount of any fines that will be assessed. The inspector will not be able to tell you what kind of fine you may face.

You’ll be given a date by which you’ll be expected to remedy the violation. If you disagree with the violation or the amount of time you’ve been given, you can appeal the citation. Make sure you explain why the appeal is justified. For example, you may need to order equipment that has a lead time that goes beyond the deadline. Once you’ve corrected all of the violations, you’re required to inform OSHA’s area director.

The best defense is a good offense

One of the most effective ways to reduce the stress and hassles associated with inspections is to plan for them. You can even rehearse, just as you perform fire and other emergency drills to ensure that workers are ready if the real thing happens.

Start by assembling an OSHA team. Appoint a coordinator for the team. Whether that’s your safety professional, a supervisor, or someone else, be sure you choose someone with a thorough knowledge of your facility or site. The rest of the team should include supervisors and others who have direct responsibility over worker safety.

It’s also a good idea to talk to your employees about inspections. Let them know that OSHA may inspect the jobsite at any time, and that the company believes in cooperating with the inspectors. Make them aware that the inspectors may want to speak with them, and that you have no objection. If your operation is a union shop, mention that they are allowed to have a union rep with them during any questioning. The key is to make sure that everyone sees that you’re unafraid of an inspection, and that you’re confident in your company’s safety plan.

You can even take steps to build a relationship with local OSHA staff. One way is to stop by their office and say hello when you need to pick up posters or other materials. Another is to call them with questions about worker-safety issues. Later, when the time comes to inspect your site, they’ll remember your willingness to cooperate, and the inspection will start on a positive note.

Remember the golden rule

It might seem obvious, but remembering to treat the OSHA inspectors as you would prefer to be treated can go a long way. Like you, they have a job to do, and like you, they would rather work with friendly, cooperative people.

Many of the findings and recommendations they’ll make are quite subjective, and your attitude can be a factor in how lenient or severe they’ll be. If they see that you have a genuine interest in safety and a cooperative spirit, they may be less stringent than if you make them feel like unwelcome intruders. And never forget that your employees will be watching the process and taking their own impressions about your commitment to safety from what you do.

Like death and taxes, OSHA inspections are inevitable. And just as thoughtful planning can reduce the problems associated with death and taxes, taking time to prepare for OSHA inspections can transform them from stressful nightmares into an opportunity to display your company’s safety commitment to both the inspectors and your own employees. With the right attitude and proper preparations, you may not look forward to inspections, but at least you won’t fear them anymore.

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