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Undergoing An OSHA Inspection: What To Expect, Penalties, & Guidance

by Karyn H. Rhodes | SHRM-SCP, SPHR on Jun 20, 2023 9:55:02 AM

While many Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspections take place where known risks exist, the majority are actually unprogrammed. And since penalties can be as high as $15,625 per violation, it’s important to make sure your workplace is complying with OSHA standards in the event of an inspection. Not sure what that involves? We’ll break it down for you here.

In this article, we’ll explain what an OSHA inspection is, what happens during a visit, the penalties for violations, and what you can do to avoid an OSHA inspection in the first place. After reading this, you’ll know the steps to take to keep your employees safe – and your organization fine-free.

What is an OSHA inspection?

An OSHA inspection is a review of a workplace performed by inspectors, called compliance safety and health officers. These officers have extensive experience and are well-trained industrial hygienists and safety professionals. Their objective is to ensure compliance with OSHA requirements and help employers and employees reduce on-the-job hazards and prevent workplace injuries, illnesses, and deaths.

A covered employer has the right to request an OSHA inspection, but OSHA may also make unrequested inspections as a result of:

  • An illness, injury, or fatality
  • Employee complaint
  • A government focus on specific industries
  • A media report of an incident

Whether requested or unrequested, either way, OSHA rarely gives advance notice except in the following situations:

  • Cases of apparent imminent danger so you can fix the condition immediately
  • When the inspection has to be conducted after normal business hours or requires preparations
  • If management or worker representatives aren’t likely to be on site
  • In certain situations such as a fatality, when a more complete inspection could result

An OSHA inspection may cover either the entire workplace or only a few operations. During a visit, compliance officers will inspect your setting for hazards by walking around the site and talking to employees. This could take just a few hours or weeks. When they’re done, the OSHA inspector will discuss apparent violations with you as well as:

  • Ways to correct hazards identified
  • Deadlines for compliance
  • Possible fines

What happens during an OSHA inspection?

When an OSHA inspector arrives, there are several activities that will take place. These include:

  • Opening Conference
  • Records Reviews
  • Safety Hazard Inspection
  • Employee Interviews
  • Closing Conference

Opening Conference

The first thing that will happen is the opening conference. During this meeting, the compliance officer will ask to meet with representatives of management and a company-selected employee representative to explain why the facility was targeted for inspection, the purpose and scope of the review, and the standards that apply. If applicable, they’ll provide a copy of the employee complaint that prompted the inspection.

Records Review

After the conference, the inspector will likely check the current and past few years of the OSHA required Logs and Summary of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses. They may also examine other OSHA records, training records, and personnel files in certain circumstances. To make things as easy as possible for you and the inspector and to demonstrate good faith, it’s a good idea to have the following ready in advance:

  • The name of the person who will be designated as the OSHA contact when the inspector arrives as well as the employee representative
  • Records of safety trainings, worker compensation files, insurance, and third-party audits

Safety Hazard Inspection

Next, if the OSHA inspection is based on an employee request, the compliance officer will check the safety or health hazards listed in the complaint. Keep in mind that the inspector may decide to expand the inspection to include other safety hazards and/or the entire workplace. Management and employee representatives should accompany the inspector on the walkaround.

As the inspector walks around, they’ll check equipment and practices for violations, sometimes using equipment to test the noise levels, fumes, and other hazardous exposures. They’ll likely take photos or videos to document violations they see. The OSHA inspector is supposed to bring violations to your attention immediately at the time they are documented.

Employee Interviews

During an OSHA inspection, the inspector will also talk to affected employees. This is where weaknesses in your safety programs are likely to be revealed. That’s because inspectors may speak to employees confidentially and can also conduct private interviews outside of the workplace. Since OSHA prohibits employer discrimination in any form against workers because of their participation in the inspection process, workers are free to answer questions related to the complaint or about the company’s safety programs in general, including those about:

  • Safety orientation
  • Specific job training
  • Safety meetings
  • Understanding of safety rules
  • OSHA required trainings,
  • Whether the employee feels that their job function is safe

Closing Conference

Once the inspector is finished, they must hold a closing conference. During this meeting, they’ll discuss all non-compliant conditions identified and violations for which you may be cited. You’ll have the opportunity to produce documentation showing your compliance efforts or that will assist OSHA in determining the amount of time needed for abatement. The compliance officer will not discuss penalties since those are determined by the area director.

A copy of each citation must be posted at or near the place in which the violation occurred and remain there for 3 days or until the violation is abated, whichever is longer.

What are the penalties for OSHA violations?

There are several types of OSHA violations that you can be assessed penalties on. These include:

  • De minimum: Penalties are unlikely for this type, which involves situations in which the possibility of an injury occurring is practically nonexistent.
  • Other-than-serious: For these offenses, which have a direct relationship to job safety and health but are not serious, the penalties cannot exceed $15,625.  
  • Serious: Per serious violation, which means death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard the employer knew or should have known about, the penalties can be up to $15,625.
  • Willful or repeated: These penalties can be as high as $156,259.
  • Posting requirements: Posting requirement violations can result in penalties of up to $15,625.
  • Failure to abate: Companies can face a $15,625 penalty per day for failure to correct a violation.

After you are cited, you have the option to have an informal conference with the OSHA area director to try to get the penalties reduced or you may file a Notice of Contest. At that point, the case would be assigned to an Administrative Law Judge and you’d need to hire legal counsel to take part in the subsequent proceedings.

How to avoid an inspection from OSHA?

One of the best ways to avoid an OSHA inspection is to minimize employee complaints. Here are a few preventive measures to help reduce your risks:

  • Display the official OSHA poster
  • Develop internal complaint systems and make them known to all employees
  • Ensure that potential serious or willful violations are identified and aggressively eliminated
  • Provide required training and implement an effective safety program.
  • Perform regular job hazards analysis for each type of job and what you plan to do to reduce them
  • Conduct periodic internal audits during which you look for violations as if you were an OSHA inspector

Stay Prepared With Ongoing Compliance

Since an OSHA inspection can happen at any time, preparation can be critical. For companies that don't have the internal support to tackle preparation themselves, outsourcing their safety management can be an ideal choice. At Complete Payroll Solutions, our HR professionals can help you minimize the impact of an OSHA visit on your organization, and your risk of penalties. Take the next step in reducing your exposure by visiting our dedicated outsourced HR page.


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