What would you do if OSHA showed up unexpectedly? Consider the following steps to help limit or reduce OSHA violations and fines.

“Someone from OSHA is here to look around.”

You can never be too ready to hear these words.

Whether there’s been an incident – and you were thus expecting a visit from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) – or not, these inspections are normally conducted without formal advance notice. And that can be a little … unsettling.

Despite the surprise nature of OSHA visits, you can and should prepare your management team ahead of time for the possibility of playing host to one of their compliance officers – even if you have an excellent workplace safety program.

This article will help you understand:

  • The reasons OSHA may come on-site
  • What may occur during an inspection
  • General OSHA violation types and penalties
  • Possible courses of action after inspection

What to do when OSHA shows up

OSHA officers should follow a specific, systematic process when inspecting workplaces including:

  • Presenting his or her credentials upon request
  • An opening conference
  • A walkthrough
  • A closing conference

Here are five things you can do to make your time the inspector go smoothly.

1. Verify the officer’s credentials.

Unfortunately, there are people who try to falsely impersonate OSHA inspectors, scamming business owners into paying fake fines.

A legitimate officer from OSHA will show his or her credentials, which should include both a photograph and a serial number. It’s a good idea to go one step further and call your local OSHA office and verify those credentials to ensure you’re dealing with a real inspector.

2. Limit your visit to what the officer has asked to see.

During the opening meeting, OSHA inspectors generally identify the scope of the investigation. You may ask specifically why they’re visiting your worksite (e.g., because someone called about a blocked emergency exit in the back of your building).

If they’re there to see something specific or ask for specific documentation, then limit the scope of their visit only to what they’ve asked to see.

Remember: Every OSHA violation a compliance officer sees can be cited.

3. Address any quick fixes during the walkthrough.

If you have to take the OSHA inspector to a part of your building where they notice something that you can fix right away, then address it on the spot.

Employers acting in good faith may reduce penalties for employers. During the inspection, you can display good faith by:

  • Cooperating with the officer
  • Applying recommendations immediately when possible
  • Responding promptly to requests for information or documents

4. Stay with the officer the entire time.

OSHA has the right to interview your employees privately outside of your presence. But aside from that, you have the right to walk beside the compliance officer throughout the inspection’s entire duration.

Take pictures of what the inspector photographs, and note what the compliance officer notes. Document as much as you can from the visit. This will help you prepare your organization to address any violations that were observed.

5. Be courteous.

Treat OSHA inspectors politely, just like you would a customer or vendor.

For example, if you’re missing a document that the officer wants to see, and you’re able to get it quickly, then find the inspector a comfortable chair and offer a cup of coffee and a doughnut.

Multi-employer citation policy

In a multi-employer worksite, more than one employer may be cited for a hazardous condition that violates an OSHA standard. OSHA takes two steps in this process:

Step 1: OSHA will determine whether the employer is a creating, exposing, correcting or controlling employer (definitions can be found on the OSHA website).

Step 2: If the employer falls into one of these categories, it may have obligations with respect to OSHA requirements.

OSHA violation types and penalties

If your inspector found your business to be in violation of OSHA standards or observed serious hazards, OSHA may issue you citations and fines that include:

  • A description of the OSHA requirements you allegedly violated
  • A list of any proposed penalties
  • A deadline for correcting the alleged hazards

With few state exceptions, these are the types of OSHA violations, ordered from highest to lowest penalty amounts:

  • Willful – When there is intentional disregard for OSHA requirements or a plain indifference to employee safety and health (not eligible for good faith adjustments)
  • Repeated – When the same or substantially similar condition or hazard has been cited within the last five years
  • Failure to abate – When a violation from a prior inspection has not been brought into compliance (fines are assessed per day beyond the deadline)
  • Serious – When there’s a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a condition that exists
  • Other-than-serious – When a hazardous condition would probably not cause death or serious physical harm, but would have a direct and immediate relationship to the safety and health of employees
  • De minimis – When an employer has implemented a measure different from one specified in a standard, but doesn’t affect employee safety or health (does not result in penalties)

Possible courses of action after inspection

It’s always a good idea to engage in legal counsel to help you walk through your organization’s response to any OSHA violations.

Your options are to either comply with OSHA or to contest their findings.

If you choose to comply, you must:

  1. Take the appropriate corrective action before OSHA’s deadline.
  2. Notify the area director by signed letter.
  3. Pay any penalties.

If you are challenging any of your OSHA violations, the proposed fines or the abatement date for the violations, you have 15 days from the receipt of the letter to notify OSHA in writing of your intentions to contest.

As a first step during this period of time, make an appointment to go see your local area manager, who sets the penalty amounts.

If you can show your area manager that you have addressed the violations, he or she may be willing to reduce your fines.

OSHA may choose to adjust the final penalties based on :

  • The size of the business
  • The good faith of the employer
  • The history of previous violations

Other things that can help reduce OSHA penalties are:

  • Having a good safety record
  • Implementing a written safety program
  • Showing employee exposures were limited
  • Acting in good-faith
  • Fixing other-than-serious violations within 24 hours
  • Proving financial hardship

Rebounding after OSHA citations

Honest mistakes and poor decisions can result in hazards or safety violations even in seemingly very safe work environments.

How you handle an OSHA inspection says a lot more about your company than whether or not you’ve been visited at all.

Cooperate with your compliance officer, show good faith and be as prepared and proactive as you can about your employees’ health and safety, and your organization will come out stronger in the end.

To learn more about avoiding your next costly HR challenge, download our free resource on the 7 most frequent HR mistakes and how to avoid them.