Back to Basics, EHS Administration, Enforcement and Inspection

Back to Basics: OSHA Inspections 101

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine OSHA inspections and what employers can expect to happen during an inspection.  

This week is EHS Daily Advisor’s Compliance Week, which exists to help safety professionals stay up to date with the latest safety compliance rules and regulations. One of the biggest parts of compliance is using the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) guidelines and requirements for safety in the workplace when developing safety programs. Because of this, safety professionals must be ready and equipped to deal with what happens during OSHA inspections.

Inspection priorities

OSHA provides a fact sheet one what employers and workers can expect during safety and health inspections. OSHA inspectors are called compliance safety and health officers, and they are experienced, well-trained industrial hygienists and safety professionals whose goal is to ensure compliance with OSHA requirements. They are there to help employers and workers reduce on-the-job hazards and prevent injuries, illnesses, and deaths, according to OSHA.

Typically, OSHA inspections are conducted without advance notice. However, employers do have the right to require compliance officers to obtain an inspection warrant before entering the worksite. OSHA has jurisdiction over approximately 7 million worksites, and the agency wants to prioritize its inspection resources on the most hazardous workplaces in the following order.

Imminent danger situations. Hazards that could cause death or serious physical harm receive top priority. Compliance officers will ask employers to correct these hazards immediately or remove endangered employees.

Severe injuries and illnesses. Employers are required to report all work-related fatalities within eight hours, and all work-related inpatient hospitalizations, amputations, or losses of an eye within 24 hours.

Worker complaints. Allegations of hazards or violations also receive high priority. Employees may request anonymity when they file complaints, says OSHA.

Referrals. OSHA considers referrals of hazards from other federal, state, or local agencies, individuals, organizations, or the media for inspection.

Targeted inspections. Inspections aimed at specific high-hazard industries or individual workplaces that have experienced high rates of injuries and illnesses also receive priority.

Follow-up inspections. Checks for abatement of violations cited during previous inspections are also conducted by OSHA in certain circumstances.

Phone and fax investigations

According to OSHA, the agency prioritizes all the complaints it receives based on their severity. For lower priority hazards, OSHA might call the employer and ask them to describe safety and health concerns, following up with a fax providing details on alleged safety and health hazards. This occurs with the permission of the complainant.

Employers are required to respond in writing within five working days, and identify any problems found while also noting any corrective actions that have been taken or planned. OSHA will usually not conduct an on-site inspection if the response is adequate, and the complainant is satisfied with that response.

On-site inspections

There are five main parts of an on-site OSHA inspection. The first part is the preparation step. Before conducting an inspection, OSHA compliance officers will research the inspection history of a worksite using several different data sources. They will review the operations and processes in use and the standards that most likely apply to those processes. Then, they gather the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing instruments to measure and record potential hazards they might find at the worksite.

The second part involves the presentation of credentials. The on-site inspection begins with the presentation of the compliance officer’s credentials, which include both a photograph and a serial number.

The opening conference is the next step to take place. The compliance officer will explain why OSHA selected the workplace for inspection and the scope of the inspection, walkaround procedures, employee representation, and employee interviews. The employer must then select a representative to join the compliance officer for the duration of the inspection. An authorized representative of employees, if any, also has the right to accompany the inspector, and the compliance officer will consult privately with a reasonable number of employees during the inspection.

At this point, the walkaround begins. The compliance officer and representatives will walk through the sections of the workplace covered by the inspection, looking for hazards that could lead to injury or illness. Worksite injury and illness records will also be reviewed along with the posting of the official OSHA poster. Compliance officers might point out some apparent violations that can be corrected immediately, and while the law requires that these hazards are still cited, prompt correction by the employer is a sign of good faith. Inspectors will try to minimize work interruptions during the process and will keep an observed trade secrets confidential.

After the walkaround, the compliance officer holds a closing conference with the employer and the employee representatives to review the findings of the inspection. They will also discuss possible courses of action an employer may take following an inspection, which could include an informal conference with OSHA or contesting citations and proposed penalties, and consultation services and employee rights.


After the inspection is over, when violations of OSHA standards or serious hazards are found, OSHA may issue citations and fines. According to the agency, citations and proposed penalties must be issued within six months of the violation’s occurrence. Citations describe the allegedly violated OSHA requirements, list any proposed penalties, and give a deadline for correcting the alleged hazards.

There are six types of violations:

  • Willful
  • Serious
  • Other-than-serious
  • de minimis (no direct relationship to safety or health)
  • Failure to abate
  • Repeated

OSHA has a policy of reducing penalties for small employers and those acting in good faith. In the case of serious violations, OSHA may also reduce the proposed penalty based on the gravity of the alleged violation. However, no good faith adjustment will be made for alleged willful violations.

Appeals are also an option. When OSHA issues a citation to an employer, it also offers the employer an opportunity for an informal conference with the OSHA Area Director to discuss citations, penalties, abatement dates, or any other information that is relevant to the inspection. OSHA’s main goal is to correct hazards and maintain compliance rather than giving out citations and collecting penalties, so OSHA and the employer may work out a settlement agreement to resolve the issue and to eliminate the hazard.

For more information on OSHA inspections, click here, and for more on enforcement, click here.

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