4 Major Reasons for an OSHA Inspection (and What to Expect During One)

osha inspection in a construction site

If you work in a high-risk industry, understanding OSHA inspections is crucial. Often, OSHA compliance officers arrive on-site with little to no warning, making it essential to always be prepared. According to a recent OSHA report for Fiscal Year 2022, there were 31,820 inspections carried out. Of these, 17,739 (approximately 56%) were unprogrammed inspections triggered by employee complaints, injuries/fatalities, and referrals. The remaining 14,081 (about 44%) were programmed inspections. These programmed inspections concentrated OSHA's enforcement efforts on industries and operations known for significant health hazards, including COVID-19, respirable silica, combustible dust, chemical processing, ship-breaking, and fall risks in construction.

Inspections can happen for many reasons—some predictable, others random. This article will explain some of the most common reasons your workplace might be visited by OSHA.

Types of Inspections

OSHA conducts several types of inspections or safety audits to ensure workplaces follow safety standards:

Programmed Inspections

Programmed inspections are a proactive approach by OSHA to ensure compliance with health and safety standards in high-risk industries. They are detailed and structured, focusing on specific types of workplaces or activities known to have higher rates of incidents.

    • Site-Specific Targeting (SST): SST inspections aim to reduce the number of injuries and illnesses at individual workplaces identified through data analysis. The selection process for SST inspections involves analyzing data from annual injury and illness reports submitted by employers. Workplaces with higher-than-average incident rates are prioritized.
    • Emphasis Programs: Emphasis Programs are specialized initiatives within OSHA's programmed inspections that target specific high hazard industries. These are divided into Local Emphasis Programs (LEPs) and National Emphasis Programs (NEPs).

Fatality and Accident Inspections

Fatality and Accident Inspections are triggered by serious workplace incidents, such as fatalities or injuries that require hospitalization. These safety audits are critical as they allow OSHA to investigate the circumstances surrounding these severe incidents to determine whether violations of safety standards contributed to the unfortunate outcomes. The primary goal is to identify the cause of the accident and implement the necessary measures to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

Unprogrammed Inspections

Unprogrammed Inspections prioritize addressing urgent safety issues that pose significant risks to workers. These are often initiated by employee complaints, referrals from other agencies, or media reports of unsafe conditions. Employee complaints can lead to inspections if workers report unsafe practices or failures to adhere to safety regulations. Referrals typically come from other government bodies that notice hazards during their operations or from concerned entities aware of potential risks.


OSHA Inspection Process

Understanding the OSHA inspection process can help you prepare properly for when inspectors arrive. Below is an overview of the typical steps involved in an OSHA inspection:

  1. Opening Conference
  2. Walkthrough
  3. Employee Interviews
  4. Closing Conference
  5. Follow-Up

Before conducting an inspection, the OSHA compliance officer has a protocol to follow, including checking in and obtaining permission to conduct the inspection. Always look for the OSHA safety inspector’s ID and business card. While impersonating an OSHA inspector is fairly unusual, it’s still better to be safe than sorry. After all, all safety inspectors have a government-issued ID and business cards. It’s also important for the company’s key managers and supervisors to determine the reason for the OSHA inspection at your workplace.

Additionally, it’s important to be aware of DOL’s final rule on employee representation during an OSHA inspection, which will take effect on May 31, 2024. This rule allows workers to have a representative, who can be a fellow worker or an outside person, accompany the compliance officer during the walkthrough and other phases of the inspection. This provision is designed to enhance transparency and ensure that employees' interests are adequately represented during the OSHA inspection process.


4 Major Reasons for an OSHA Inspection

fall hazard at work

1. Worker or Public Complaints

Based on the published reports by OSHA, there were about 6,789 complaint inspections in 2022. In the United States, it's legally permissible for workers to file a complaint regarding occupational safety at any time. Workers may request to remain anonymous when filing, ensuring their protection. Upon receipt, these complaints are taken seriously, with an OSHA inspector required to follow up. The public can also submit complaints if they perceive any facility or construction site as hazardous.

2. Targeted Inspections

OSHA conducts targeted safety audits based on criteria such as high injury and illness rates, previous safety violations, and exposure to risky conditions. Industries such as construction, manufacturing, agriculture, healthcare, and mining are often selected due to inherent hazards like falls, chemical exposure, or dangerous machinery. Workplaces with histories of specific incidents, such as fall-related injuries in construction or chemical spills in manufacturing, are frequently prioritized. This strategic focus allows OSHA to efficiently allocate resources to ensure compliance and safety in high-risk environments, ultimately aiming to reduce workplace injuries and illnesses.

3. Local Emphasis Programs (LEPs)

Selection for LEPs is based on local injury rates, the presence of particular industries, and the incidence of events or complaints identified as local priorities. Active LEPs may target sectors like oil and gas extraction in regions where these industries are prevalent, focusing on specific risks like high-pressure systems and chemical exposures.

According to OSHA's Regional LEP directives, “The emphasis programs may be administered by a single area office, or by a whole region (Regional Emphasis Programs), and they may be applied to all of the region's area offices. These LEPs will be supported by outreach to educate companies in the region about the program and the dangers it is meant to mitigate or avoid. This outreach might take the shape of educational mailings, training sessions at local trade exhibitions, or speeches at gatherings of industry associations or labor unions.”

4. National Emphasis Program

Like LEPs, NEPs are designed to proactively manage and mitigate known hazards through focused oversight and enforcement. NEPs are selected based on data analysis, reported workplace accidents, and the observed prevalence of certain hazardous conditions across the nation. As of recent reports, active NEPs include efforts to mitigate risks associated with silica dust, common in sectors involving masonry and glass manufacturing, and hexavalent chromium, often used in stainless steel production and welding. Currently, there are 11 active NEPs, which include:

    • Combustible Dust
    • Federal Agencies
    • Hazardous Machinery
    • Hexavalent Chromium
    • Isocyanates
    • Lead
    • Primary Metal Industries
    • Process Safety Management
    • Shipbreaking
    • Silica
    • Trenching & Excavation

Visit this page at osha.gov for more information on LEPs and NEPs.


OSHA Penalties for Violations

The severity of these OSHA penalties varies depending on the nature of the violation. Here's a detailed breakdown of the different types of penalties and how they are determined:

 Violation Description Penalty
Other-than-Serious Violations Minor risks that could cause less severe health issues $0 to $16,131
Serious Violations Hazards that could cause serious physical harm or death $1,190 to $16,131
Willful Violations When an employer is aware of a legal safety requirement but intentionally disregards it $11,524 to $161,323
Repeated Violations Fines for not fixing problems that were already cited $11,524 to $161,323

Penalty Appeal Process

Employers have the right to contest OSHA citations or penalties by filing an appeal within 15 working days of receiving a citation. Appeals are handled by the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, an independent agency. The appeal process includes a hearing before an administrative law judge where employers can present evidence and argue for adjustments or dismissal of the OSHA citations or penalties. This process ensures that employers have a fair opportunity to contest decisions they believe are incorrect.


Defenses Against Citations

Employers have several defenses they can use to contest OSHA citations, which include:

    • Lack of knowledge of the violation: Employers may argue that they were unaware of the specific regulation or that the hazard was not recognizable. This defense hinges on proving that the violation was not apparent and that the employer had taken reasonable steps to understand and comply with applicable safety regulations.
    • Infeasibility of compliance within the given timeframe: This defense involves demonstrating that compliance with the specific OSHA standard was not feasible or practical within the timeline provided by OSHA. Employers must show that they have made a good faith effort to comply as quickly as possible and outline the steps taken towards compliance.
    • OSHA inspector error during the inspection: Employers can challenge a citation by proving that errors were made by the OSHA compliance officer, such as incorrect application of the law, misunderstandings about the nature of the operation, or factual errors in the inspector’s findings.

Process for Contesting OSHA Citations

To contest a citation, the employer must file a notice of contest within 15 business days from the receipt of the citation. This notice must be filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, which is an independent federal agency tasked with adjudicating disputes between OSHA and employers.


Other OSHA Inspection Outcomes

Beyond citations and penalties, several other outcomes can arise from an OSHA inspection:

    • Informal Conference: An informal conference offers a chance for the employer and OSHA to discuss the findings. This meeting may result in an agreement that prevents the issuance of a citation and helps clarify what corrective actions are needed.
    • Abatement Period: This is the time allocated for the employer to correct the cited safety violations. The length of this period depends on the severity of the issue and the practicality of the necessary changes.
    • Follow-Up Inspections: OSHA may conduct follow-up inspections to ensure that all safety violations have been adequately addressed. These inspections verify compliance and help maintain ongoing safety standards in the workplace.


Frequently Asked Questions about OSHA Inspections

How often do OSHA inspections occur?

OSHA inspections do not follow a set schedule and can occur at any time. The frequency of inspections in any particular workplace depends on factors such as the industry, reported incidents, and the presence of high-risk operations.

Can OSHA just show up unannounced?

Yes, OSHA can and often does show up unannounced. Most OSHA inspections are surprise visits, intended to give inspectors a true picture of the everyday working conditions.

What type of OSHA inspection is conducted when immediate death or serious harm is likely?

When immediate death or serious harm is likely, OSHA conducts an Imminent Danger Inspection. These inspections prioritize situations where conditions pose a significant risk of harm to workers.

What happens when you call OSHA on a company?

When you call OSHA to report unsafe working conditions, OSHA will review the complaint and decide the appropriate action. This might include contacting the employer to correct the issue, or more commonly, conducting an unannounced inspection of the workplace to investigate the claims.

An OSHA inspection follows a standard process, consisting of three phases. What are these phases?

The three phases of an OSHA inspection are:

  • Opening Conference: Where the OSHA inspector introduces themselves, explains the reason for the inspection and gathers information about the company.
  • Walkthrough: The inspector tours the facility to inspect for potential hazards, speaks with employees, and evaluates workplace compliance with safety standards.
  • Closing Conference: The inspector discusses the findings with the employer, outlines potential violations, and explains the next steps, including any potential citations.

Can I refuse to talk to OSHA?

While you can refuse to speak to an OSHA inspector, it is generally not advisable. Cooperation during an inspection can often lead to a more favorable outcome. Refusing to cooperate can escalate the situation, potentially leading to further investigation and penalties. Employers must also allow OSHA inspectors access to an employee representative who can participate in the OSHA inspection process.

The material provided in this article is for general information purposes only. It is not intended to replace professional/legal advice or substitute government regulations, industry standards, or other requirements specific to any business/activity. While we made sure to provide accurate and reliable information, we make no representation that the details or sources are up-to-date, complete or remain available. Readers should consult with an industrial safety expert, qualified professional, or attorney for any specific concerns and questions.


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Author: Herbert Post

Born in the Philadelphia area and raised in Houston by a family who was predominately employed in heavy manufacturing. Herb took a liking to factory processes and later safety compliance where he has spent the last 13 years facilitating best practices and teaching updated regulations. He is married with two children and a St Bernard named Jose. Herb is a self-described compliance geek. When he isn’t studying safety reports and regulatory interpretations he enjoys racquetball and watching his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.