The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) requires employers to provide a safe work environment for their workers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for creating workplace safety standards and enforcing compliance with the OSH Act.
OSHA enforces compliance with the OSH Act by conducting inspections, gathering evidence and imposing penalties on noncompliant employers. OSHA penalties are civil penalties that may result in fines. However, OSHA may refer certain violations to the U.S. Department of Justice for criminal prosecution. Actual penalties imposed on an employer take into consideration the gravity of the violation, the size of the employer’s business, good faith efforts the employer makes to comply with the law and the employer’s compliance history.
Tips for Employers
- Check inspector credentials.
- Notify management when the inspector arrives.
- Determine the purpose and scope of the inspection.
- Be prepared to prove compliance.
- Get a copy of the complaint, if possible.
- Set ground rules for inspection.
- Cooperate and be responsive.
- Take note of what the inspector documents.
OSHA inspections are conducted by OSHA’s compliance safety and health officers. Compliance officers have authority to:
- Conduct inspections;
- Assign specialists to accompany and assist them during an inspection (as appropriate or required);
- Issue citations for noncompliance;
- Obtain court-issued inspection warrants; and
- Issue administrative subpoenas to acquire evidence related to an OSHA inspection or investigation.
Whenever possible, OSHA will assign compliance officers with appropriate security clearances to inspect facilities where materials or processes are classified by the federal government.
Compliance officers are required to obey all employer safety and health rules and practices for the establishment that is being inspected. This includes wearing all required protective equipment and necessary respirators. Compliance officers must also follow restricted access rules until all required precautions have been taken.
Employers can request compliance officers to obtain visitor passes and sign visitor registers. However, compliance officers cannot sign any form or release, nor can they agree to any waiver. This prohibition extends to forms intended to protect trade secret information.
OSHA inspections can last for a few hours or take several days, weeks or even months. All inspections can be divided into three stages, an opening conference, a walk-around and a closing conference.
In general, compliance officers will try to make the opening conference brief in order to proceed to the walk-around portion of the inspection as soon as possible. In general, the opening conference is a joint conference, where both employer and employee representatives participate. However, the compliance officer may hold separate opening conferences if either employer or employee representatives object to a joint conference.
During the walk-around, compliance officers will take notes and document all facts pertinent to violations of the OSH Act. In general, compliance officers will also offer limited assistance (as appropriate) on how to reduce or eliminate workplace hazards.
As with the opening conference, unless an objection exists, the closing conference is generally a joint conference. However, the closing conference may be conducted in person or over the phone. The inspection and citation process will move forward regardless of whether employers decide to participate in the closing conference.
During this conference, employers should also request copies of recorded materials and sample analysis summaries. Finally, employers should take time to discuss their right (and the process they must follow) to appeal any possible citations.