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Surviving an OSHA Inspection

by John Hall

When your friendly Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspector comes a-knockin’, it’s usually too late to get your house in order. Here are some dos and don’ts to prepare you for an OSHA inspection and minimize your chances of citations.

Preparation is your best defense
Don’t wait until OSHA is at your door to prepare for a site inspection. The head-in-the-sand approach is not a good idea. Efforts to fix or hide potential problems ahead of the compliance officer’s walk-through of your facility are unlikely to succeed. Some employee will be all too happy to point out that a “problem” machine was taken offline before the area was inspected. While you can stall an inspection by, for instance, requiring a warrant, don’t expect enough time to create injury and illness records, training records, or documentation of required safety programs (e.g., lockout/tagout and hazard communication).

Don’t miss the opportunity to make a good first impression. Generally, the first things a compliance officer will ask to see are your OSHA injury and illness records and various written programs. You aren’t off to a good start if you have difficulty locating them. The ease with which you provide those records and the general orderliness and appearance of the work site likely will influence how the inspection progresses. When a compliance officer finds your work areas clean and orderly and your records in good shape, he may be less inclined to turn over every rock during the inspection. By contrast, you can expect the officer to make copious notes if he has to duck, step over, and squeeze through work areas that are in disarray.

HR Audit Checklists

A good offense goes a long way
You shouldn’t make the mistake of ignoring employee safety concerns and failing to act on the ones that are valid. OSHA has multiple examples of inspections that resulted in sizeable penalties following an employee’s report to the agency that the employer failed to address his concern.

Another mistake that can have costly consequences is having safety rules that aren’t enforced. The best approach is to have only the rules you need, and enforce the rules you have. Having posted signs that are routinely ignored, outdated, or unneeded and rules that are given lip service or only casually enforced could likely undermine your safety efforts. Make sure necessary safety rules are in place, but don’t let them become confused with notices and advisories that aren’t mandatory. One defense against an OSHA citation is to show that an employee violated a relevant work rule that was clearly communicated and enforced.

Finally, while it’s desirable to establish a good rapport with the compliance officer, it’s not your job to identify problems or potential violations. Remember that the inspector is required to propose citations for observed violations of OSHA standards.

John E. Hall is the OSHA consultant for Lehr Middlebrooks & Vreeland, P.C., editors of Alabama Employment Law Letter. Before working with the firm, he was the OSHA area director and worked for 29 years with the agency in training and compliance programs, investigations, enforcement actions, and setting OSHA priorities. He can be reached at (205) 226-7129.