How to Prepare for a Surprise OSHA Inspection

Posted by
Lance Roux
on Feb 4, 2022

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You do everything you can to keep your work site safe. Still, it's possible that OSHA will subject you to an inspection without warning. Here's what you need to know to prepare for a compliance officer's arrival.

What to Expect From an OSHA Inspection

First up, expect to be surprised. There are only four cases where OSHA will give you advance notice:

  1. If there is an apparent, imminent danger on site, OSHA will reach out to inform and assist management in fixing the problem as quickly as possible.
  2. If there are features of the site that are not expected to be in use every day but which must still be examined for compliance, OSHA may reach out to ensure that there are necessary personnel and materials onsite.
  3. If the inspection needs to take place outside of business hours, or if no one else will be onsite, OSHA will reach out to ensure that necessary staff is aware and present.
  4. At the Area Director's discretion, advance notice may be provided before a more comprehensive inspection, such as a fatality investigation.

Outside of these four categories, OSHA will not notify you. In fact, it is a federal crime for an OSHA employee to provide unauthorized notice of an inspection. Once they are on site, the OSHA inspector will begin with an opening conference, then conduct a walkaround before ending with a closing conference. Let’s look at what you should be aware of each step of the way.

The Opening Conference

When a compliance officer arrives, they will begin with an opening conference. During this time, they should present their credentials, then meet with management and employee representatives. The opening conference is kept brief so that the walkaround can begin as quickly as possible after their arrival. 

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The Walkaround

This portion of the inspection may take hours or weeks, depending on the size of your site and how exhaustive the inspector believes their investigation needs to be. However, an OSHA inspection must conclude no more than six months after it begins. OSHA is also required to receive a court warrant before entry, if you request that they do so. During the walkaround, the compliance officer will bring apparent violations, if any, to the attention of management and employee representatives. The inspector may speak with employees privately outside of the workplace.

The Closing Conference

After the walkaround, OSHA will meet with both representatives. This is usually done jointly, but either party may request a separate meeting. In that case, the OSHA inspector will meet with the employee representative first. Both will be informed of apparent violations and solutions, as well as possible fines. 

Because they are an equal party to every OSHA inspection, there are several rules regarding employee representatives to be aware of.

know your employee representative

An employee representative must be a present employee of the company and be able to discuss policies, procedures, and any past compliance issues. They should have access to important documents that the OSHA inspector may request. OSHA may also request additional union staff or technical experts accompany their walkaround as needed.

If your workplace is unionized, then each union’s staff is in charge of appointing an employee representative. If your workplace is not unionized, the site's employees are able to select a representative directly. Management is not permitted to choose the employee representative, and OSHA inspectors have final say in any dispute. Typically, the walkaround in a non-unionized workplace goes unaccompanied. You should know your employee representative and be able to contact them quickly in the case of a surprise inspection.

Hazard Assessments and Safety Trainings

Keep documentation of all known workplace hazards. The OSHA inspector will want to know this information. They will also check that employees have up-to-date training as required. An OSHA employee rights poster must be displayed in a visible location, and all employees should be able to articulate your site's safety policies.

Keep Clear and Organized Documentation

While you won't be able to specifically prepare in advance for a surprise inspection, you can help minimize its disruption by maintaining relevant documentation in an easy-to-access location. Share this location with your employees. All records, employee contracts and complaints, worker compensation files, insurance forms, and third party audits may be relevant. Any safety issues discussed in a third party audit must have been corrected before OSHA’s inspection or you risk a citation for willful violation -- which will cost you $145,027.

Related Content: 5 Things You Should Do Before Your Next OSHA Inspection

Know your rights

It is your responsibility to know your rights and help your employees understand theirs.

Employees have the right to decline an interview with an OSHA inspector for any reason. OSHA investigators do not have the right to tape record any of their interviews or conversations with employees, nor can they make an employee sign a witness statement.

If an employee decides to sign a witness statement, they have the right to examine it to ensure that all information is correct before signing. If it is not in their native language, they can request that one in their native language be provided for them, which OSHA must accommodate. Employees have the right to request a copy of any witness statements that they sign, and should do so.

Both employers and employees have the right to request summaries of any testing or sampling that is done on the premises.

In the event that you receive a citation, you have the right to file a notice of contest or a petition for modification of an abatement date. You must notify your employees through a written announcement if you choose to do so.

perform internal audits

The best way to be prepared for a surprise OSHA inspection is to conduct periodic audits and ensure your workplace is safe and clean. If you are not confident that your workplace meets OSHA standards, reach out to a third party for an audit and develop a corrective action plan as needed.

Listen to complaints and concerns from your employees. How you address these issues in the moment could be the deciding factor for an employee who is considering contacting OSHA.

While an OSHA inspection may catch you by surprise, it doesn’t need to catch you unprepared. Keep your workers informed and trained, your workplace secure, and your documentation up to date. Lastly, be aware of your rights. By following these steps, your site will be set up to make a compliance officer’s visit as smooth as possible.


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Tags: Safety Management, OSHA Inspections, Safety Audits, Workplace safety

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