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Preparing for an OSHA Audit

What prompts an OSHA inspection?

Many different circumstances can prompt an OSHA inspection, ranging from a workplace death to mere chance. The following are some of the reasons why OSHA may inspect your facility:

  • Catastrophes and fatalities

  • Employee complaints

  • Referrals, which can come from any entity, including another government agency

  • Programmed inspections, in which worksites are randomly selected, or based on emphasis programs, injury rates or previous citations

  • Follow-up inspections

Source: OSHA

Federal and state agencies conduct nearly 100,000 inspections every year, making the odds of your worksite being inspected fairly low. But just as safety professionals need to ensure a worksite is prepared to identify and abate even the rarest of safety hazards, employers always should be ready for the possibility of an OSHA inspection. “You may not get an inspection in your facility for the next 30 years. However, you always have to be ready,” said Rick Kaletsky, a Connecticut-based consultant and former OSHA compliance officer. Kaletsky, who has written a book about preparing for and responding to OSHA inspections, notes that OSHA can show up at virtually any moment, and employers in most cases will not receive advance notice of the visit. Knowing what happens during an OSHA inspection and what to do during one can ensure things run smoothly – for both your company and the inspector.

When OSHA knocks ...

Before OSHA arrives, establish a procedure you will follow if an inspector shows up, recommends JoAnn Dankert, senior consultant with the National Safety Council. Your plan should identify a person at your facility, such as the safety manager or the owner, who will be responsible for escorting the inspector. Select a meeting space for opening and closing conferences to take place. An employee representative also will be allowed to attend these conferences and the walkaround. At organized sites, a union contract will spell out who that representative may be; in other situations, a member of the safety committee could join the process. Have a plan B in place in the event your safety point person is not at the worksite the day an inspector visits, Dankert said. For example, train another employee on the safety procedures and how to show the inspector around the facility. Some inspectors will be dressed casually. Others may dress more formally when they arrive, and then change into more appropriate clothes, such as a jumpsuit, for the inspection. To make sure you’re dealing with a bona fide OSHA inspector, ask to see the person’s identification. The ID will include the inspector’s photo, name and office; it will not be a badge. Write down the inspector’s name and office. If you’re still unsure of whether the inspector is from the government, Kaletsky suggests calling the local OSHA office to check. Look up the phone number yourself – don’t rely on a number provided by the potential impostor.

Setting the scene

Once you have confirmed that the compliance officer is from OSHA, he or she will go over the specifics of the inspection. Known as an opening conference, the inspector will explain what prompted the inspection (see “What prompts an OSHA inspection?” in the box on the right) and may hand over certain documents, such as a copy of a complaint with the complainant’s identifying information removed. Employers will learn about their rights, including how to contest potential citations. The parameters of the inspection will be explained, including what machines or procedures will be observed. The inspector also will ask for basic information about the facility, including:

  • Type of work performed
  • Number of employees
  • Names of those in charge
  • Contact information

The length of an OSHA inspection will depend on the focus and size of the facility – it could take anywhere from one day to multiple weeks. The inspector will request certain files, such as injury and illness logs, and you will be expected to produce them in a reasonable amount of time. “When you come across as knowledgeable and organized and can produce documents, I think they have the opinion of, ‘Hey, this group has its act together,’” Dankert said. On the flip side, unorganized or inaccurate documents can lead to problems. Dankert – who once considered becoming a compliance officer and spent several weeks training with OSHA – visited a machine plant as part of a special emphasis program inspection. The visit started very specific – looking at amputation hazards – but it quickly turned into a comprehensive, wall-to-wall inspection when OSHA learned the employer had failed to record an amputation on its injury log.

Mind your manners

Conduct yourself in a professional manner when in the presence of the compliance officer, and keep your cool during the entire inspection process. “They aren’t going to let you buy them lunch, but if you’re nice to them, they probably will be nice to you,” Dankert said. “If you’re adversarial toward them, they will probably take a hard stance.” If the compliance officer becomes confrontational or gets out of line, remain calm and call the inspector’s office, advises John Newquist, an Illinois-based consultant and former OSHA assistant regional administrator. Feel free to ask the inspector to postpone the inspection if he or she shows up at an inconvenient time, such as when production is under deadline pressure and it would be difficult to make accommodations, Kaletsky said. But keep in mind that this would be a short-term solution, and the compliance officer may not agree to the postponement. Even if the inspector is willing to put off the walkaround, he or she likely will still request various files and want to take a quick look around. An employer has the right to refuse entry to an OSHA inspector. However, experts told Safety+Health that OSHA can easily acquire either a warrant or subpoena.

Walkaround

Before the walkaround begins, the OSHA inspector may ask if your facility has any unique dangers. Ensure inspectors are wearing appropriate personal protective equipment for your site. Although some inspectors may bring their own PPE, be prepared to provide them with the necessary gear. “We should hold them to the same requirements,” Dankert said. “It really shows your commitment to safety and that it extends to them.” How the inspector chooses to conduct the walkaround will vary greatly, Kaletsky said. The walkaround may begin with particular machines or a certain production area, or the inspector may want to see how a process runs from beginning to end. Some inspectors may want to start at one side of the building and move across; others may go up to the top floor and work their way down. During the walkaround, the inspector will take photos and notes and ask questions. Newquist recommends that employers do the same. Taking notes and photos ensures both sides have a record of the conversation. Avoid a “head in the sand” mentality, in which any OSHA question is answered with “I don’t know,” Newquist said. The escort may be afraid of saying something wrong, but avoiding the question does not help either, he said. Instead, tell the compliance officer you will find the answer or get someone more knowledgeable to provide the answer.

Interviews

Certain employees may be selected for a one-on-one interview with the compliance officer. Identify a private area – a conference room, for example – that can be used for these interviews. The questions will be simple – covering topics such as the type of training provided – and employers should tell their workers to answer any questions truthfully, Newquist said. If the selected worker is too busy or in the middle of a crucial part of the production process, let the compliance officer know when the employee will be free. “Inspectors don’t want to unduly impede production. Their goal is to get the information they need and move along,” Dankert said, adding that most conversations between employees and compliance officers take no longer than 10-15 minutes. Some inspectors are multilingual. But in the event a worker does not speak the same language as the inspector, the compliance officer may bring in an outside translator or allow another worker to translate the conversation. 

In conclusion ...

A closing conference takes place shortly after an inspection ends, although not necessarily on the same day. Two types of closing conferences occur, according to Newquist. One is a standard, in-person meeting. The other type, which has become more prominent in recent years, is conducted over the phone. It may take several hours for a compliance officer to travel to a worksite, so conducting a closing conference over the phone allows an inspector to consult with his or her supervisor as well as save OSHA travel money, Newquist said. On one hand, a teleconference to close the inspection can be challenging because pertinent materials, such as photographs, will have to be emailed. On the other hand, a teleconference allows the employer to put multiple people on the line to listen, including managers at other worksites who may have similar hazards. The inspector will not ask for any money or threaten the employer with large fines unless a fee is paid immediately, as has occurred in scams involving people posing as compliance officers. 

During the closing conference, the compliance officer will summarize hazards found during the inspection, and may mention citations that could result, Newquist said. He or she also will review what happens in the event citations are issued. OSHA has six months after the closing conference to file citations, which will arrive by certified mail. You do not need to wait until the agency gets back to you with citations before taking proactive steps. You can check in with OSHA and inform the agency if you have corrected any of the hazards pointed out during the inspection. Correcting hazards not formally cited does not imply guilt, Newquist noted: 

Not every hazard the inspector points out will lead to a citation, and correcting those hazards sends a positive message to OSHA. Although not a guarantee, the agency may not follow through with issuing a citation if an employer corrects a hazard ahead of time. Kaletsky points out that whether your facility gets cited is not the point. The identification of a hazard that could lead to a worker injury should be enough to prompt an employer to mitigate the situation. “Anything you do in enhancing employee safety is of course a good thing,” he said.

-- March 2015, NSC Safety & Health

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