Understanding the OSHA Inspection Process: A Guide for Employers
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) currently has jurisdiction over approximately 7 million worksites across the United States.
Of course, OSHA doesn’t inspect each one of those worksites every day. But if you operate a warehouse, storage facility, or another operation with a relatively high number of risks for workers, you can certainly expect regular inspections.
To prepare for OSHA inspections, you’ll need to understand how they work — and identify and address hazards before an inspector knocks on your door. In this article, we’ll answer common questions about the inspection process and provide general tips for planning your strategy.
How Often Does OSHA Perform Worksite Inspections?
OSHA conducts around 100,000 inspections per year. That figure includes scheduled, random, and investigative inspections.
Generally, OSHA schedules programmed inspections every 10 to 12 months, but the administration may perform inspections more frequently for certain types of businesses.
For example, the scheduling period for construction inspections is one calendar month. That’s reasonable, since construction workers frequently use ladders, scaffolds, heavy machinery, and other tools that raise their risks of injury. In OSHA’s annual list of standard violations, 5 of the 10 most frequently violated standards are specific to the construction industry.
Additionally, businesses can be subjected to “surprise” inspections for various reasons. Some common reasons for surprise OSHA inspections:
- Imminent Danger - OSHA receives a report of a hazard that could cause death or serious harm to workers if not immediately corrected. This report could come from an employee, former employee, media source, or member of the public.
- General Complaint Investigations - Employees have the right to report violations, and OSHA may investigate the complaint, depending on the severity of the alleged offense.
- Random Inspections - Some surprise inspections do not begin with a complaint. In recent years, OSHA’s National Emphasis Program (NEP) has increased the rate of random inspections.
- Follow-Up Inspections - OSHA may perform inspections to verify that a cited violation has been resolved. If the violation is unresolved, the employer may receive a Failure-To-Abate (FTA) violation, which can result in additional fines and other penalties.
Inspections may cover the entire worksite or specific aspects of the worksite. For employers, there’s some good news: The requirements for citations are fairly strict. In most cases, inspectors will issue warnings — but when citations are issued, they can be substantial. As of 2023, OSHA can issue a maximum penalty of $15,625 per violation. Maximum penalties are adjusted annually for inflation.
How Does an OSHA Inspection Work?
OSHA inspectors are not required to give advance notice. However, they must present their credentials, and employers have the right to call their local OSHA directors to confirm that the inspector has authority to visit the worksite.
In certain circumstances, OSHA may issue an advance notice of an inspection:
- If the hazard that prompted the investigation is an imminent danger to workers, and the condition must be resolved as quickly as possible.
- When the inspection must occur after regular business hours.
- When worker representatives and managers are not likely to be onsite without advance notice.
- In other circumstances where an OSHA Area Director believes that a more complete inspection will follow the initial inspection (for example, in a fatality investigation).
OSHA inspections follow a consistent process, which begins with an opening conference.
1. The Opening Conference
The inspector will conduct a brief conference after arriving at your worksite. They’ll ask to meet with representatives of employees and company management.
The opening conference usually includes both of these groups. However, labor or management can request separate conferences. In either case, conferences are usually brief; the inspector will explain the reason for the inspection, including any complaints that prompted an investigation. However, the inspector will not (and cannot) reveal the source of the complaint.
The OSHA inspector may also check the employer’s Log and Summary of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (PDF) and other OSHA-required documentation prior to the walkaround.
2. The Walkaround
During the walkaround, the inspector will assess the safety or health hazards that prompted the complaint. The inspector may also check for other hazards — they have broad authority to expand the scope of the inspection.
The OSHA inspector will also talk to employees, and may conduct private interviews outside the workplace. Employees are not required to talk to the OSHA inspector or sign written statements, but they may do so (and they have the right to confidentiality throughout the process).
For employers, it’s important to follow a few basic rules during the walkaround:
- Remain polite and courteous. It’s okay to ask questions, take notes, and request documentation.
- Don’t ask employees to stop working, and don’t attempt to remediate hazards on-the-spot. The inspection must occur when workplace conditions are typical; if managers shut down equipment or take other steps to change the conditions of the work, the inspector may need to return on another shift.
- Be prepared to provide documentation of safety training, hazard assessments, and on-the-job injuries.
Employers may record the inspection on video or via audio. You should also take written notes and measurements along with the inspector — those records may be useful when addressing hazards or when contesting citations.
3. The Closing Conference
In the closing conference, the inspector will discuss any apparent violations. They will provide deadlines for addressing hazards, ways to correct the hazards, and potential penalties for non-compliance.
Employees will be informed that:
- The employer must not discriminate against employees for health and safety activity.
- If the employer contests an OSHA citation, the employees must be notified.
- Employees have a right to contest the time that OSHA allows for the employer to correct the hazard.
- If the employer contests an OSHA citation, the employees have a right to elect "party status” before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (an independent agency).
4. Citations and Follow-Ups
The OSHA inspector cannot issue citations immediately after the inspection. Only the Area Director has the authority to issue citations. However, the inspector may recommend penalties (and in many instances, the Area Director will trust their judgment).
If the employer must remediate an issue, the inspector may schedule a follow-up visit. The employer may or may not receive advance notice of the follow-up — so efficient remediation is essential.
Preparing for an OSHA Inspection
Employers have strong incentives to comply with OSHA. Limiting legal exposure is certainly one of those incentives, but it’s not necessarily the most compelling: A safe worksite is an efficient worksite. When you prioritize safety, you can retain talented employees, reduce worker’s compensation payouts, and build a more robust business.
To improve compliance, keep these tips in mind.
Audit Your Hazard Assessments
Employers must perform assessments to determine what personal protective equipment (PPE) and other controls are necessary for each job. For the General Industry, hazard assessments are covered under 29 CFR Part 1910.132.
Most employers are probably aware of the importance of hazard assessments — but if you’re concerned about an OSHA inspection, it’s a good idea to audit how your assessments are performed and documented.
- How do you evaluate relative risks for each hazard?
- Are the proposed controls in line with industry best practices, equipment manufacturer literature, and other third-party sources?
- Do you reevaluate hazards on a regular basis? If so, how often?
OSHA does not require that employers keep detailed hazard assessments in writing. However, that’s the best practice: If an inspector asks questions about specific hazards, it’s much better to provide them with detailed notes than to simply provide the dates of the assessments.
Provide Safety Training — And Document Your Training Sessions
If you don’t document your safety training, OSHA has no evidence that those training sessions occurred.
Keep documentation of all employee safety training, including “refresher" courses. Your documentation should include:
- The date of the training session.
- The names and titles of each employee who attended the session.
- Information about the method of instruction.
- The name of the person performing the training or evaluation, along with their signature.
You should also keep additional records that detail your planning process for safety training. Those records should include a list of training materials used, the learning objectives, the qualifications of the persons developing the training materials, and any plans for evaluating the coursework.
Training requirements are part of dozens of different standards that apply to different industries, so you’ll need to understand your exact obligations. For detailed guidance, read: What Training Does OSHA Require? An OSHA Training FAQ.
Communicate with Employees
Any employee can call for an inspection, and while frivolous complaints occasionally occur, OSHA treats all complaints seriously.
By maintaining clear lines of communication with employees, you may be able to address issues before they’re escalated. Workers should play a role in equipment purchasing decisions, and employers should communicate important decisions that impact their teams — such as PPE purchases and material handling equipment (MHE) selection.
While you’ll want to communicate with your team, you must understand their rights: Employees can communicate confidentially with OSHA, and must not face any discriminatory consequences (such as shift changes or lost hours) for discussing safety and health. You don’t want to give the impression that you’re “cracking down" on safety — you want to show your employees that you’re committed to a safe work environment.
Finally, if an OSHA inspection results in a citation, don’t panic. You have the right to contest OSHA citations, and inspectors will generally provide employers with reasonable timeframes for correcting violations.
But by preparing early — and investing in safe, ergonomic equipment — you can form a long-term strategy for compliance. To learn how ergonomic equipment from BHS can help you maintain a safe and efficient worksite, contact the BHS sales team at 1.800.247.9500 today.