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An OSHA inspector is in the lobby. Now what? Contractors must decide quickly how to accommodate a government official with a badge who wants to inspect a worksite.

OSHA inspectors often don't give advance notice of an inspection, and when they show up it can cause panic. Advance preparation and knowledge is the key to preserving rights under the law. It pays to prepare for an inspection before the inspector shows up.

Inspection checklist

Designate one person in the company or on the worksite to accompany the OSHA inspector. Never allow the inspector to roam without the presence of a company representative. The manager who oversees safety training and compliance should be the person assigned to this role.

  • Hold regular safety training for employees that covers everything they need to know to be safe and that aligns with OSHA rules. Keep impeccable records of who attended, when the trainings were held and what was covered. These records can be critical in avoiding or reducing fines if an inspector finds violations.
  • Maintain an up-to-date safety manual, OSHA 100s and 300s, material safety data sheets and accident records and know where to find them. Good recordkeeping goes a long way in keeping companies out of trouble.
  • Conduct safety inspections periodically. Discipline employees who violate safety procedures and keep records of disciplinary actions. Employees who have been trained in proper safety procedures and then willfully ignore them may provide a defense against OSHA fines.

What to expect

OSHA follows a process in inspections and follow-up actions. Here's what to expect at each stage.

Initial meeting
When an inspector shows up in the lobby, first ask to see his or her credentials. This is not a mere formality, because some companies have been victimized by fraudsters posing as inspectors. If there are any doubts about the inspector's credentials, call the OSHA office for confirmation of the visit.

The biggest mistake companies make is to allow an inspection without the accompaniment of the appropriate manager. Sometimes an office manager may be the only person onsite when an inspector arrives. Thinking that he or she has to comply immediately with the inspector's request, the inspector may be given free rein to go anywhere and everywhere. The office manager also may be unaware of where to find accident reports, the safety manual and other documents the inspector wants to see.

Companies have the right for the company safety director or another appropriate manager to walk along on the inspection. In some cases, it's prudent to have legal counsel at the inspection, especially if it is part of an accident investigation. If managers or legal counsel are not available, politely ask the inspector to reschedule the visit. The inspector usually will agree to return the next day or later in the week. An inspector can obtain a subpoena for an inspection, but this is rare.

It's important to ask the purpose of the visit. A visit that is in response to a complaint or an accident is limited to that area of the site and the inspector can't go fishing around the site for other deficiencies. A company has the fight to refuse if the inspector asks to inspect something outside the stated purpose of the visit. If it's a programmed visit, the agency's term for a general inspection, then the inspector is entitled to see everything.

Opening conference
This is a pre-inspection meeting where the inspector explains the purpose of the visit, what he wants to see and who will be interviewed. Take good notes of everything that is said in this meeting, including who attended. The inspector can interview employees, but managers have the right to have an attorney present. Employees are interviewed outside the presence of management but may voluntarily share what they said during the interview if they so choose. However, employers are prohibited from retaliation against employees who cooperate with the inspector.

The inspection
The company representative’s job during the inspection is to follow the inspector and watch and listen. Take copious notes and definitely bring a camera. The inspector will have a camera, so photograph everything that he does, preferably from a variety of angles because different perspectives may lead to different conclusions. The goal is to have a record as complete as that of the inspector. If the company doesn’t record the inspection, then the inspector's report will be the only record. Inspectors can make mistakes, so it's important to create this shadow record.

Closing conference
Before leaving, the inspector will meet with the company representative and discuss what he found. He will not issue citations at this meeting, but the company representative can get a good idea of what citations are likely. Learn as much as possible about any potential citations so the company can begin preparing its response. State any reasons for disagreeing with a citation, and if a subcontractor is to blame, ask for the company's name. Also, ask to view the inspector's notes of the inspection. While there can be no argument about the validity of his observations, the company representative can point out obvious mistakes. Ask for a copy of the inspector's notes.

Post inspection
If the company receives citations, first make the necessary corrections and train employees. Companies have 15 business days to file a Notice of Contest, objecting to the citations on factual or legal grounds. During that initial 15 days the company can ask for an Informal Conference with the OSHA area director or assistant director. This is the opportunity to dispute incorrect citations or negotiate reduced penalties.

Just as employees are trained in safety, train managers on what to do when an OSHA inspector arrives, and position the company to mitigate penalties and preserve legal rights.

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