It’s no secret that OSHA inspections trigger a fear response for some employers, where employees are sent scrambling to reconcile obvious issues on the shop floor, or wrangle paperwork while stalling an inspection, for example. That’s because, as evidenced by the volume of citations issued each year, many companies are not operating under a sparkling state of compliance.
Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) inspections are usually unexpected, and that’s by design. In fact, Compliance Safety & Health Officers (CSHO) are prohibited by law from providing employers with advanced notice of pending inspections, with limited exceptions to the rule. OSHA goes to great lengths to ensure an unexpected arrival.
Despite the rules and standards, over 4,000 workers die on the job annually—what would be the point of inspections if each organization had ample time to prepare for them, right?
While these drop-in inspection events may seem to be random, antagonistic experiences, that’s not the case; OSHA exists to assure a safe workplace for the American workforce, and the agency uses objective data to develop its inspection program. There’s a reason for Area Offices to pay your organization a visit, there’s a method behind the madness. But because there are many reasons for OSHA to conduct an inspection, it may be difficult to understand the circumstances that have triggered an inspection of your work environment; this confusion can be compounded by OSHA’s practice of conducting all inspections without advance notice. Yet with some inspections, like annual programmed inspections, OSHA knows exactly where its Compliance Safety & Health Officers will be going.
When you find one of OSHA’s Compliance Safety & Health Officers waiting in your lobby, the first thing you have to understand is that all inspections have a purpose, and if you understand that purpose, it is easy to make the connection as to why your operation is being inspected. You cannot predict the timing of inspections, but there is no reason these events should come as a surprise. With a little knowledge about the OSHA inspection system, you’ll know why they’re there before they arrive.
We’re going to walk through OSHA’s system of unprogrammed and programmed inspections. There are many different types of inspections under these two categories, but, generally, unprogrammed inspections are brought about by an event, while programmed inspections are planned.
With over 100 million work environments under OSHA’s jurisdictional umbrella, naturally, the agency has to prioritize enforcement of standards in support of its mission, so the most dangerous developing situations and threats to workforce safety are slated for immediate attention. Those inspections are categorized as “unprogrammed”. Unprogrammed inspections are the agency’s response to high-risk situations; these types of inspections are OSHA’s highest priority.
For example, in 2013, there were 17,058 unprogrammed inspections out of a total of 39,228—43% of all OSHA inspections. There are specific circumstances that trigger an unprogrammed inspection.
Notification of “imminent danger” associated with your organization is the fastest way to receive a visit from OSHA. If OSHA receives information related to “imminent danger”—where workers risk exposure of serious threats to health and safety—the agency’s proactive response is to visit the worksite and assess the situation, to prevent an occupational hazard from claiming lives. Information related to imminent danger can come to OSHA in many different ways, from employee and third party complaints to inter-agency referrals. Situations presenting imminent danger will guarantee a visit from one of OSHA’s Compliance Safety & Health Officers, if the agency assesses the threat accordingly.
Situations of “imminent danger” may be difficult to determine, but safety professionals with strict attention to high-risk work environments will have a basic understanding of precautions as new, unforeseen hazards develop; if you’re working for a company with a proactive safety culture, you can find support for engineering controls to eliminate imminent danger situations before those scenarios ever develop.
Second, OSHA will arrive for an unprogrammed inspection in response to “fatal accidents” and “catastrophes”—also known as “fat\cat” events, in some circles. This should make sense to any safety professional because, by law, such events must be reported to OSHA; the reason for mandatory reporting of fatal incidents is to initiate an immediate inspection so the agency can assess any remaining threatening conditions, enforce hazard mitigation, and determine when workers can return to the job safely.
For example, if there’s an explosion at your facility that claims the lives of workers and endangers the general public, or a chemical leak that injures the workforce, or any number of critical scenarios where a worker dies, the act of reporting the incident will prompt an unprogrammed inspection.
Third, “complaints” and “referrals” received by OSHA are open invitations for inspection, with the gravity of the situation, as reported to the agency, serving as the determining factor as to OSHA’s expediency in response. Serious complaints may quickly bring about an inspection, while others, depending on the nature of the complaint, may go unanswered. Stated simply, if OSHA receives a serious complaint and it seems credible, the Compliance Safety & Health Officer will be paying you a visit sooner rather than later, or at least making formal contact.
Now, ideally, safety professionals would receive any complaint internally, first, and take measures to investigate and mitigate the hazard, responding to the concerns of the workforce—a quality safety program would explicitly call for this and even reward workers for bringing the issue forward. But because workers often fear retaliation and may be hesitant to be singled out for ‘whistleblowing’, even though the law protects them from retaliation and invites worker participation in the process, anonymous complaints from the workforce may be viewed by workers as a less risky alternative to raising issues internally.
By law, employees have the right to call OSHA for an inspection of their workplace.
Finally, there are other circumstances that may trigger an unprogrammed inspection; these inspections, statistically, occur much less frequently than others—about 7% of all inspections are in this catch-all category.
OSHA may perform an unprogrammed inspection if:
- Information that a permanently disabling injury or illness has occurred and the hazard relating to that incident still exists;
- Information relating to an alleged hazard covered by a local, regional or national emphasis program; An employer failed to sufficiently respond to previous OSHA request;
- The employer has a history of violations or is part of the Enhanced Enforcement Program;
- A whistleblower has alleged discrimination for complaining about workplace safety issues;
- A minor issue is raised when an inspection has already been scheduled or begun for another reason; and
- Information gives reasonable grounds to believe a minor (under 18) is exposed to hazardous workplace conditions.
Unprogrammed inspections are either proactive or reactive, and because of reporting requirements, safety professionals essentially ‘schedule’ reactive inspections themselves, when contacting OSHA.
These enforcement events shouldn’t come as a surprise to most safety professionals.