In ancient times, the Romans used to keep their children in line by telling them, “The
barbarians are at the gate!” This struck fear in the minds of the kids and saying, “OSHA is at the door!” can have the same effect on your management team. It doesn’t have to though. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a branch of the United States Department of Labor and is the enforcement entity for workplace safety and health in the United States.
OSHA develops and publishes safety rules and work practices that when published, become
regulations and federal law. OSHA routinely enforces these regulations by conducting site
visits and walk throughs.
There are several reasons for an inspection. Most employers think the main reason for an
OHSA visit is due to an employee complaint. This isn’t necessarily true. There are six basic
reasons for an OSHA visit. In order of priority for the OSHA Compliance Officer they are:
1. Situations that present imminent danger
2. Severe injuries and illnesses
3. Health and safety complaints from workers
5. Targeted inspections for hazardous industries or workplaces
6. Follow-up inspections
So, in the event your employee comes to you and says, “OSHA is at the gate!” Take a deep
breath and tell yourself everything will be okay. If you are properly prepared, it will be.
Step one: Welcome the OSHA officer in with a smile
It is true that you can refuse entry. This is generally not in your best interest. In the event you do that, the compliance officer will return in two hours with a search warrant. In some cases, the warrant may limit them in what they can look at, but not always. Doing this will likely cause the inspection to take on a “hostile” tone or be a more thorough inspection to determine why the company would not allow the inspection to begin with. Generally speaking, it is always best to welcome them in.
Step two: Get their credentials
In the event of an OSHA inspection, a best practice is to ask to see the identification and
credentials of inspectors and ask why they are there to conduct an inspection (what triggered the inspection) and the scope of their inspection. This will give you an idea of what they want to see and why they are inspecting. It must fall into one of the above categories.
Step three: Get the paperwork
Likely the inspector will ask to see policies, records, and logs. There are several policies that are required by OSHA regulation. The most commonly asked for are:
1. Hazard communication written plan
2. Fire prevention plan
3. Lockout tagout written plan
Depending on the state, there may be other plans. California, for example has a requirement for a written safety plan. This is known as the Injury and Illness Prevention Plan or IIPP. It has been my experience that the Cal/OSHA Compliance Officer will always ask for that. You will need these plans in place. They will most likely want to see training records associated with these plans. Almost every standard requires training.
Step four: The walk around
It’s likely the OSHA compliance officer will want to walk the premises. You may, however,
have impressed them so much with your paperwork that they will be satisfied and not walk
through the premises. You can always hope for that. They will probably want to see the
grounds and are primarily looking for violations. If they take any pictures, they are building a case. You should also take pictures of what they are photographing. It is also appropriate for you to look at the picture that the compliance officer just shot. If they don’t tell you what is of concern, it is also appropriate to ask. If you can fix the issue, do it there and then. That always helps. Do not volunteer any information to them while you are walking. Most importantly, do not admit to knowing that there was a violation or that the hazard exists. Be friendly and answer only what is asked.
Step five: The interviews
The OSHA compliance officer will likely ask to interview employees. You cannot attend these interviews. The employees are usually selected by the compliance officer and this is one area in which you have no control. The OSHA compliance officer will be checking training and knowledge of hazards.
Step six: The closing conference
Every OSHA visit ends with a closing conference. During the closing conference the
compliance officer will explain in general terms what they found and what the next steps will be. Never assume you are home free if the compliance officer doesn’t indicate they found any violations. That really doesn’t mean anything. The compliance officer’s boss will decide whether there is enough evidence to pursue a citation. They may decide to come back if the boss sees anything in the pictures that they want to take a closer look at.
So, to recap the action items you will want to do, consider the following:
• Call your safety professional if you have one on staff
• Find out why they are there (the purpose of the inspection)
• Find out what they want to see (scope of the inspection)
• Follow the inspector(s) throughout their investigation
• Take pictures of everything they take a picture of
• Make notes on everything they make notes on or discuss
• Take initial steps to identify and correct any machinery, equipment, tools, or any
issues identified by the inspector(s).
If you are issued a citation, you should appeal it. It never hurts and you will likely get a reduced fine. That process is another article waiting to be written. Just remember, OSHA at the gate isn’t a reason to panic. With a solid plan and being prepared, you will survive.