Throughout the safety and health industry, one of the biggest fears is an OSHA inspection. This doesn’t have to be the case. OSHA inspections, just like any other regulatory inspection, are very important and should be taken very seriously. However, with a few guidelines, the fear can be reduced, allowing safety managers to perform at their peak and minimize the risks of a potential citation from OSHA.
Pre-planning for an OSHA inspection is a must. Safety managers should work with key managers and supervisors at the workplace to ensure everyone knows their role. The following procedures can be used to prepare for and manage an OSHA inspection.
Arrival of the OSHA CSHO
Compliance safety and health officers (CSHO) have a protocol to follow when conducting an inspection. This includes checking in and obtaining permission to conduct the inspection. Make sure your receptionist knows whom to contact when OSHA arrives. It is best to get a supervisor or manager present as soon as possible to greet the CSHO. The manger should do the following:
Verify the CSHO's credentials: Look at his or her ID and business card. There have been rare cases of people impersonating a CSHO. All CSHOs will have a government-issued ID and business cards.
Determine why the CSHO wants to inspect your workplace, i.e. complaint, accident, programmed, imminent danger, follow-up: You will play a key role in assisting the CSHO conduct the inspection. If you know the scope of the inspection soon after the CSHO arrives, that will be much easier. It also is important to have time to get all responsible parties within the company notified and present.
Tell the CSHO that it is your company policy to contact your management prior to starting the inspection: Have the CSHO wait while you are making phone calls. At this point, you have not given the CSHO permission to inspect your workplace, so he or she should wait until the proper managers arrive. There is no set time the CSHO is required to wait. Keeping the wait as short as possible will begin to build a relationship that will be important throughout the inspection.
Permission to Inspect
I do not recommended you deny the CSHO permission to conduct the inspection. Although it is your company’s right, it can have negative impacts on the process. Discussing this ahead of time with all decision makers and assigning what manager will be giving the permission in the preplanning stage is a must.
If your company insists that OSHA get a warrant to inspect, the agency can and will most of the time. If the CSHO is denied access, he or she often assumes the company is trying to hide something, thus delaying the inspection. When this has happened, the inspection usually is longer and can involve more CSHOs.
Once proper managers are present and permission to inspect has been granted, the CSHO will conduct an opening conference. This typically is a quick conference to discuss the reason for the inspection, scope, rights and responsibilities. Here are some tips for the opening conference:
- Request an opening conference if the CSHO does not call for one.
- Take detailed notes of everything discussed. If you need time to take notes, politely request that from the CSHO.
- Keep all publications and documents given to you by the CSHO.
- If more than one CSHO is going to inspect, find out if they plan to make the inspection in one group or split into two or more groups to make the inspection. If they want to divide into two or more groups, tell the CSHO you require an employer representative with each group.
- Be cooperative with the CSHO. At all times prior to, during and after the inspection, act in a professional, businesslike manner. Never enter into personal arguments.
- Communicate with the CSHO that you would prefer him/her to advise the company of all suspected violations and the standard involved. Inform the CSHO that you will be taking notes of all the suspected violations he/she informs you of so that there will be no dispute as to whether the company was informed.
It is common for the CSHO to review documents during the inspection. This often occurs during or right after the opening conference. If a document review is requested, it is suggested to only allow the CHSO to review your company safety and health program at the time of the inspection. Other records should be sent to the CSHO after upper management approves.
Do not volunteer to give or let the CSHO view any safety inspection reports made by your safety department, insurance carrier, etc., other than those reports required by OSHA (such as scaffolding inspection forms). This includes not giving or letting the CSHO look at any such reports that have been made on behalf of a subcontractor's activities.
Once the CSHO completes the opening conference and records review, he or she will start the walk-around portion of the inspection. This part of the inspection is where the CHSO typically will gather the evidence needed to issue a citation. Keep these steps in mind during the walk-around:
- Have a company representative accompany the CSHO at all times. Never leave him or her to have free and unlimited access to your workplace.
- Control the inspection: Treat the CSHO as you would a guest in your house; he/she is there with permission and will be expected to follow all instructions given to him/her and will be required to conduct the inspection in such a manner that it does not disrupt the scheduled work. Remember, it is the company’s workplace, not OSHA's. The CSHO is to be treated as any other visitor; under your control while in the workplace. Tell him or her you need to take your own notes and photos and that you plan to gather information at the same time.
- If the CSHO asks questions about issues related to work that is being performed by a subcontractor, refer those questions to the subcontractor’s competent person.
- Take detailed notes of everything seen, discussed and done by the CSHO.
- Take photographs of everything the CSHO photographs. If the equipment, work area, etc., can be photographed from a more favorable position (different angle, greater distance, etc.), photograph it from the different position.
- Do not allow any employee to perform demonstrations for the CSHO. For example, if a truck is idle and the CSHO asks you or an employee to operate it so he or she can see if the horn or backup alarm is working, refuse to do it. Allow the compliance officer to see the work only as it normally is done.
- Do not volunteer any information. The CSHO is trained to obtain admissions from companies. Be careful answering questions. When in doubt, ask him or her to restate the question. Do not admit to a violation. State the facts only, not your opinion. Do not lie to the CSHO at any time.
- Do not issue orders, such as “clean up the trash,” during the inspection to have conditions corrected that have not been noticed by the CSHO. The immediate abatement of an alleged violation will not preclude being cited by the CSHO and may alert him/her to the condition.
- Make sure you fully understand everything the CSHO does or comments on. If you do not understand everything he or she says and does, ask questions. Insist on having time to record all facts, even if the inspection is slowed down.
Rules for Being Interviewed
During the course of the inspection, the CSHO may ask you some questions. Although this is not an official interview, please treat it as such. The CHSO also may conduct an official interview with you. When either of these occur, these rules should be followed:
- Tell the truth.
- Make sure you understand the question.
- Just answer the question, nothing else.
- Answer based on your knowledge only. Don’t guess or speculate.
OSHA does not have a right to privately interview a member of management. Managers always can have other managers and representatives present when they are being interviewed. That rule changes with employees. OSHA has the right to interview employees privately. When this occurs, do not obstruct. The employee also should follow the same rules for being interviewed. Rule #1 is the most important — tell the truth. Never lie to a federal employee conducting an investigation.
Upon conclusion of the inspection, a closing conference will be held. Typically, this occurs on the same day of the inspection. However, if the CSHO still needs to gather information, he or she may delay the closing conference. Ensure all company representatives are present and follow these steps:
- Take notes of everything discussed and record what documents were distributed.
- Make sure that no questions you have concerning the inspection go unanswered. If the CSHO feels that violations exist at your workplace, find out exactly why he/she feels that way. Tell the CSHO that you are noting every potential violation that he or she advises may exist so there will be no dispute at a later conference or hearing. Hand the list back and ask if that is everything. Ask what other items may exist. If the CSHO is unsure or does not list any others, explain that you are noting that no additional items were included in response to your questions.
- Finally, don't give any estimates of abatement time needed to correct any alleged violations.
OSHA Left, Now What?
The CSHO will go back to the office and complete the citation if one is being issued. This can take anywhere from a couple days to a few months. It depends on the workload the CSHO has on his or her plate. The CSHO will review the details of the case with his or her supervisor as well to ensure citations are based on the facts. These citations will then come in the mail to your office.
The deadline to issue citations is six months after the inspection. OSHA has quite a while to get these to you, but when you receive them, do not delay. Employers only have 15 working days to contest or attend an Informal conference or just pay the fine. Don’t miss that deadline as you lose all your rights.
About the Author: Dan Johnson, CSP, is the president of SFI Compliance Inc. and a safety consultant with 23+ years of experience working with clients and OSHA during and after inspections. He has assisted over 100 companies with OSHA citations. Johnson also is a safety training course author and subject matter expert for RedVector, a Vector Solutions brand.