If an OSHA Inspector Comes Calling

Copyright 2017

One of the most nerve-wracking experiences in a manufacturing executive's career is when an Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) inspector shows up at the door and says something like: "We received a complaint and we'd like to take a look around." Part of the reason for the anxiety is that OSHA investigators don't give any notice and can be very secretive.

If there's a fatal industrial accident at  a plant, OSHA will conduct an investigation within eight hours.  The company should  have at least one experienced employment lawyer on hand who can not only deal with OSHA, but also the police and the prosecutor's office. And it sometimes helps to have an attorney sit in at meetings with concerned employees.

Here are some steps you can take to help protect your company:

  • Put someone in charge of a possible inspection. You need a designated hitter who can respond intelligently and courteously. And you should have a back-up contact person ready in the event of vacations or days off.
  • Check credentials. If someone shows up at your workplace and claims to be from OSHA, don't automatically believe it. You obviously don't want strangers walking through your facility -- whether you have trade secrets or just modern-day security concerns. If you aren't satisfied with the inspector's credentials, call the local office before letting him or her get past the waiting room.
  • Inquire what it's all about. Ask the inspector to tell you the area of concern and what OSHA is looking for before answering questions or giving a tour. Inspections are usually caused by complaints. While the inspector won't say who called, he or she will outline the issue. Less often, OSHA does programmed inspections based on Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) codes and it's possible that your number just came up. 
  • Don't demand a court order in most cases. The inspector won't have any trouble getting one quickly and you're likely to antagonize the government. If you're uneasy, you might want to call  and see if your attorney can come right away. 
  • Keep the visit focused. Once you identify the problem, answer only the questions the inspector asks -- don't volunteer additional information. And only show the inspector areas of your building that  are affected. Avoid walking through the rest of the building if possible. This isn't to impair the agency. You're simply trying not to raise new issues  that will enlarge the enforcement effort.
  • Do what  OSHA does. If  the inspector measures something  and takes pictures, you should measure and take pictures of the same items. If  the inspector does an air-quality study, bring in an expert as soon as possible -- that day, preferably -- to repeat the study. If you aren't armed with your own test data or photographs, it's hard to argue that the agency's determination is wrong. And it may be even more difficult to convince a jury that the testing is wrong.
  • Consider the alternatives. After  an inspection, OSHA holds a closing conference.  The inspector will outline the problems and tell you to expect correspondence from the agency. Citation notices and proposed penalties arrive shortly afterwards. There are rules you must follow in posting the citations in your workplace.
  • Don't let time slip away. OSHA gives 15 business days to contest a citation. Failure to meet deadlines can result in serious consequences. Get legal help.

The penalties may seem small, but by paying them, you may trigger action from other government agencies. And if you don't change the way you do business, subsequent penalties are likely to increase dramatically. So what initially may seem like an expensive fight to prove your company's innocence  can turn out to be  the less-costly route in the long run. Consult with your human resources and legal advisors.  By understanding how OSHA conducts inspections, you can be better prepared to handle the situation in a way that minimizes your legal and financial exposure.