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February 26, 2007
Will Your Workers Be Ready if OSHA Comes Knocking?

Every year OSHA inspects tens of thousands of workplaces from coast to coast. With so many businesses operating in each OSHA region and so few inspectors, the odds of being visited by OSHA are quite small for most companies. But since you never know, it is always best to be prepared. And being prepared for an OSHA inspection means preparing your supervisors and employees, too. Here are some of the key things they should know about inspections.

Why would OSHA conduct an inspection? There are several possible reasons:

  • Somebody has made a complaint about worksite safety or health--perhaps a current or former employee, or perhaps even a resident from the community who is worried about hazardous materials or some other safety or health hazard that could affect the area surrounding your company.
  • A fatality has occurred in your facility.
  • It's a regularly scheduled inspection. This is most likely if you are in a high-hazard industry. Thousands of high-hazard worksites are targeted for unannounced, comprehensive safety and health inspections every year.
  • It's a follow-up visit, perhaps to determine if prior violations have been corrected.

What are inspectors looking for? Inspectors are looking for violations of OSHA standards.

Why It Matters...
  • OSHA says that enforcement "remains the foundation for reducing workplace injuries, illnesses, and fatalities" and that investigations continue to be a principal enforcement tool.
  • Last year, OSHA planned nearly 40,000 investigations, not to mention many unplanned investigations based on imminent hazards and employee complaints.
  • Penalties for OSHA violations uncovered in an inspection can be costly (e.g., BP Products North America was fined $21 million last year).
  • When employees understand the investigation process, they are better prepared to help your company survive a visit from OSHA.

Exactly what kind of violations depends on the nature of your operations and the particular hazards of your workplace. However, you and your employees should be aware that last year's list of the most-often-cited OSHA violations for general industry featured safety and health problems related to:

  • Machine guarding
  • Lockout/tagout
  • Ladders and scaffolding
  • Hazardous chemicals
  • Respiratory protection
  • Fall protection
  • Electrical safety
  • Powered industrial trucks

Inspections can cover pretty much your whole facility, or they can be limited to certain areas, operations, conditions, or practices. But remember, a limited inspection can always be expanded, depending on what inspectors find once they get inside.

How is the inspection conducted? The agenda for OSHA inspections are generally pretty standard and include five basic steps:

  • When inspectors show up, the first thing they do is present their credentials to the facility manager. Although companies have the right to require a warrant at this point, most prefer not to take a confrontational stance and simply invite the inspectors to enter the facility.
  • During a brief opening conference with members of management and employee representatives, compliance officers explain the nature and purpose of the inspection and indicate the scope of the inspection and the records they wish to review. If the inspection was triggered by an employee complaint, the inspectors will provide a copy of the complaint, but not the employee's name.
  • The inspectors will then ask to examine the OSHA 300 Log and other accident and illness reports. They might also ask to see such things as a copy of your hazard communication program, lockout/tagout procedures, or fire safety programs. They'll also check to make sure that OSHA safety and health posters are appropriately displayed.
  • During the walkaround inspection, inspectors will look for violations of specific OSHA regulations. They will probably want to talk to employees and supervisors--and they have that right. Employees also have the right to talk to OSHA inspectors. They can even talk to them privately if they want to.
  • The inspection wraps up with a closing conference during which the inspectors review any violations and discuss possible methods and timetables for correction. Inspectors will describe the company's rights and responsibilities and answer any questions at this time. They'll also explain that violations could result in a citation and fines.
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