How To Handle An OSHA Site Inspection

By Mike Larson, Editor | September 28, 2010

OSHA. It's a name that can strike cold, clammy terror into the hearts of even hardened veteran contractors.

A visit from the federal government's Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors ranks near the top of things every contractor would like to avoid.

Nevertheless, OSHA inspections do happen — sometimes for obvious reasons like accidents, sometimes by planned surprise, and sometimes by sheer chance because the inspectors just happen to see a site and decide to visit.

Of course, the best thing a contractor can do is be knowledgeable about OSHA safety regulations and follow them as closely as possible all the time.

But being prepared and knowing what to do when OSHA pays a visit can make a big difference in how smoothly the inspection goes, how well the result comes out, and how well you're positioned for any follow-up proceedings.

The stakes are high.

Serious violations can bring fines of up to $7,000 each. Repeat offenses can cost up to 10 times the first-offense fine. Willful offenses (blatant disregard for OSHA rules) can cost up to $70,000 each.

What's more, OSHA can cite a contractor for each employee or instance of a violation.

If having one person working up high without proper fall protection would bring a $7,000 fine, having five people unprotected up high could cost you five times that much: $35,000.

Experienced Expert Offers Tips

Western Builder asked Bruce Morton, CHST, a safety consultant with Platt Safety Services, Franklin, WI, to share some tips about what a contractor should do if his or her company finds itself hosting an OSHA site inspection.

Bruce's one-sentence summation: "Have the required information readily at hand, be cooperative, know your rights, and gather — for yourself — exactly the same information and photos that OSHA gathers."

One of the best tips is to incorporate a good safety plan into your company's everyday operations. "If you have a formal safety plan, follow OSHA rules, train your employees in safety practices, discipline those who don't work safely, and frequently conduct your own safety inspections, you will avoid costly accidents and have less to fear from an OSHA visit," says Morton.

In addition, if OSHA does cite your operation during an inspection, having a good safety record may help reduce your penalties and fines by up to 25 percent, and showing good faith by immediately correcting any problems may reduce them by up to 10 percent.

Here are some specific tips from Platt Safety about handling an OSHA inspection:

  1. Be sure the visitors really are OSHA representatives. Require them to show proper identification. If they don't, escort them off your site.
  2. Be courteous and polite.
  3. Ask why the OSHA inspectors have come to your site. Have they been called to investigate a specific situation? Have they seen something that attracted their attention? Or have they simply picked your company off a list?
  4. If you are the project's general contractor, immediately notify all your subcontractors that OSHA is on site.
  5. Always keep a copy of your company's safety policy on site and readily available. OSHA will absolutely ask for it. Having it handy will make things go more smoothly and will make your company look better.
  6. Have your safety representative walk with the OSHA inspectors during their tour of the site. The safety representative may be from a consultant, or may be from your company's own safety department.
  7. If you are not absolutely certain that every employee is working within OSHA standards, stop work while OSHA is on site, and have employees focus on cleaning up the site.
  8. Duplicate all the information OSHA gathers. When the inspectors take photos, you take photos (the more the better, and from multiple angles, if possible). When the inspectors write something down, you write down the same thing. If OSHA talks to someone working on site, write down the questions, the answers, the name of the person, and the name of his or her employer.
  9. Employees have the right to not talk with OSHA representatives during the site inspection if they don't want to. But if they choose not to talk, OSHA can subpoena them and ask the same questions in court. It's generally best to do the interview where an employee is most comfortable. That's usually on site, rather than in court.
  10. Also, employees have the right to have a representative (member of management, union representative, or lawyer) present during the interview if it makes them more comfortable.
  11. During the inspection, do not agree or disagree with the OSHA inspector.
  12. Be honest. Give the best information you can. But answer only questions that you understand and that pertain to you. And answer only the question asked. Do not give additional information or expand into other topics.
  13. If OSHA offers suggestions or points out unsafe acts as you are walking the job site, fix them immediately. It shows your good faith.

Post-Inspection Conferences And Appeals

After the inspection is complete, the OSHA representatives will have a closing conference with you. At the conference they will tell you what they've found, will go through a list of alleged citations, and will tell you how long you have to correct the problems.

During the closing conference you will also have a chance to ask any questions you have. This is a good time to ask whether the OSHA reps have any additional recommendations about how your company can improve its safety program.

Again, the key to making this conference go smoothly is to be courteous and cooperative.

Immediately after the closing conference, develop a plan to address any key issues OSHA pointed out. That is also the time to organize any information you'll need in order to tell your side of the story about any citations you feel were unwarranted.

OSHA has six months to issue its citations.

After receiving a citation, your company has 15 working days to meet with your local OSHA office in what is called an "informal" conference.

At this meeting, you can tell your side of the story, challenge any citations you believe are undeserved, and present evidence that your company has made changes to correct the cited problems and prevent them from happening again.

The better prepared you are for that meeting, the better your chances of minimizing fines and future inspections.

If you don't agree with the outcome of the "informal" meeting, you can contest citations by arranging a "formal" meeting with the OSHA regional office serving your area.

Following OSHA safety rules in your daily operation and developing a standard procedure for handling an inspection will help your company stay calm when OSHA shows up at your site.

Editor's Note: Bruce Morton is a safety consultant for Platt Safety Services, chairman of the Wisconsin Underground Contractor's Association's safety committee, and a member of the Common Ground Alliance for Damage Prevention. He will present a free seminar "Safety for Profit" at 10:00 a.m. in the main-floor theater during the Wisconsin/ Northern Illinois CONEX trade show at State Fair Park in West Allis, WI, January 28 and 29, 2009. Platt Safety Services will also be exhibiting in booth 937 at the show.


OSHA's Top 10s

Here are the top 10 areas that have drawn the most OSHA citations and the heftiest OSHA fines from October 2007 through September 2008.

Most Frequent Citations

  1. Scaffolding
  2. Fall protection
  3. Hazard communications
  4. Electrical lockout/tagout
  5. Respiratory protection
  6. Electrical wiring methods, components and equipment
  7. Powered industrial trucks
  8. Ladders
  9. Machines
  10. Electrical system design

Heftiest Fines

  1. Fall protection
  2. Scaffolding
  3. Electrical (classified) locations
  4. Electrical lockout/tagout
  5. Excavations
  6. Machines
  7. General-duty clause
  8. Powered industrial trucks
  9. Walking-working surfaces
  10. Process safety management of highly hazardous chemicals