OSHA will make inspections of a workplace for a variety of reasons, including following a worker injury and always after a worker’s death.
Inspections may also occur randomly or part of a program aimed at a particular industry that OSHA has decided to target.
The other way an inspection may occur – and the main focus of this article – is if an employee contacts the agency to complain about possible safety violations.
These complaints may or may not result in an inspection of your workplace based on certain conditions, including the timing of the complaint. Under OSHA regulations, a worker can only report an alleged violation.
After OSHA receives a complaint it will decide whether it is worthy of an on-site inspection.
The agency has a set of criteria, at least one of which must be met in order for it to conduct an on-site investigation or an investigation that includes sending the employer a questionnaire to determine if it is complying with its safety regulations.
A current employee or employee representative must submit a written, signed complaint:
- That includes enough details to help OSHA assess whether the employer is violating its safety regulations or if there is an imminent danger of physical harm to employees.
- That alleges the worker was injured or made ill by a hazard that is still present in the workplace.
- That claims an imminent danger to workers exists in the workplace.
- About a company in an industry that is part of an OSHA local or national emphasis program, or a high-hazard industry that is the focus of such a program.
- Against an employer that has been cited in the past three years by OSHA for egregious, willful or failure-to-abate citations.
- Against a facility that is scheduled for or already part of an OSHA inspection.
If any of these conditions are not met, OSHA will typically make a complaint inquiry by phone or e-mail.
How a complaint inquiry works
If, for example, one of your employees contacts OSHA to complain that you are not using proper lock out/tag out procedures when cleaning certain machinery, the agency would likely contact your company.
It would tell you about the alleged hazard and ask that you assist in determining whether a hazard or violation exists.
During that first point of contact, the agency would ask that:
- You promptly investigate to see whether the violation does indeed exist and that if it does, you abate the hazard to ensure employee safety and regulatory compliance.
- After investigating, you document your findings and detail what kind of corrective action you took or are undertaking.
- You post a copy of the complaint letter from OSHA in a conspicuous area so that all of your employees can see it.
OSHA usually requires that you respond with the results of your internal investigation and provide the report of findings and action taken within five days of being contacted by the agency.
If you don’t respond to the initial contact, do not provide a report within five days or if OSHA deems your response inadequate, it may then decide to inspect your facility.
OSHA will also provide a copy of your response to the complaining employee. If the employee thinks you have not made the corrections or have not been honest with OSHA, they can ask the agency to conduct an on-site inspection.