Knock, Knock – What To Do When OSHA Shows Up

When OSHA shows up at your facility or worksite, it can be a very daunting experience.  But, it should not be a frightening experience.  The question is “what do you do?”  Obviously denying OSHA entrance is not the wisest choice.  Whether OSHA shows up in response to an employee complaint, a routine programmed visit or as the response to an accident, you should follow a similar approach.  If you have a corporate procedure, you should follow that but some items I discuss here are not in any corporate procedure.

OSHA compliance officers will visit for a specific reason and not just a random visit to your site or facility.

When OSHA compliance safety and health officers (CSHOs) show up they typically want to see the senior manager on the site and not the safety officer or manager.  Sorry to all of you safety managers, but in OSHA’s eyes you are not as important as senior management.  But to the senior manager, you are, or you should be, vitally important to assist him/her with this visit, provided you know what to do.

Usually, when anyone shows up and says they belong to a safety organization, no matter who they ask for the security guards will call the safety manager.  This will be a good thing because it will give you a bit of time to get the manager ready for OSHA.  First, call your senior site manager, even if he/she is off site, and let him/her know that you were informed that OSHA is at the site requesting access and you are going to meet the CSHO.  If the senior site manager is off site, call the most senior on site manager and let them know that OSHA is at the gate.

When you meet the CSHO, you should request to see their credentials and ask for the purpose of their visit.  Remember to be polite, the CSHO is NOT out to get you.  The CSHO is only doing his/her job which can be difficult when there is a perceived adversarial relationship.  Next, you should bring CSHO to the senior manger by the safest and most direct route possible, don’t forget to have PPE.  Depending on the reason for the site visit, you may have an opening conference to review the specifics of the reason of the visit.  Based on the reason for the complaint and what the CSHO requests to see, you can mentally prepare the route you want to use to take the CSHO to areas needed.

If you have a union represented on your site, and especially if the reason for the visit is an employee complaint, the CSHO will want to meet with your union representatives (usually the shop steward or the chairman of the shop stewards).  If you don’t have a union and the visit is due to an employee complaint, that employee can meet with the CSHO.  REMEMBER, whether the employee complaint is valid or not, you CANNOT retaliate against the employee for any reason.

After you have your opening meeting, the CSHO may or may not have a separate private meeting with the Union Rep or employee.  You will have no place at that meeting and you not be directly informed of the conversation, so don’t worry about it.

After the initial meeting(s), the CSHO will want to be escorted to the area(s) of concern from the complaint or the program.  You should mentally prepare the path you will take for The Walk.  You should also make sure that the CSHO has the required safety equipment to enter the work site (the same requirements as all other workers) and the CSHO should receive the same safety briefing that is given to all other visitors to your site.  For you to be a good aid to the senior manager, you will need to document the walk.  If possible, you need at least two people to assist this process – a camera person and a note taker.  You should try to document everything.

The camera person should have a reliable camera, extra batteries and an extra photo storage card.  The camera person should take a photo of everything the CSHO takes a photo of.  Actually take a least two photos, one of what the CSHO took and another wider angle of the bigger area.  It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words; a well taken photo can save you a thousand dollars.  The photos will document actual conditions that are sometimes explainable after the citation.

A good note taker should try to take exact notes of the conversations with the CSHO as well as the locations where they occurred.  The note taker should refrain from asking questions unless to ask to clarification of an item that he/she did not hear clearly.  The safety manager, if not being the note taker, should also take copious notes of the Walk.  Where anything is unclear request clarification from the CSHO but try to refrain from a debate.

The amount of time it will take for the Walk will vary based on the complaint or reason for the visit.  One facility where I worked, the CSHO took three visits to see all of the areas he needed to investigate.  While this may seem excessive, it can work to your advantage.  After the first visit, you have a general idea of the areas in question and you can immediately address the areas where the CSHO raised issues.  By looking ahead but to future visit, you can ensure that area does not have grievous violations.  And the possible violations that the CSHO raised on the previous visit can be addressed where possible to demonstrate good faith to the CSHO.  Both of these approaches can minimize the possible levels of violation and the amount that violation can cost you in the long run.

When the CSHO is finished with his on site investigation, you should have a closing conference to understand what the CSHO has seen and what he feels is a violation.  This again is not a forum for debate, but it is another opportunity for clarification of potential violations and the nature of their seriousness.  If the Walk takes more than one visit you can have a mini debrief following that visit, but the CSHO does not have to do this.

Hiring a safety consultant can help you prepare a response to any citation resulting from OSHA’s visit.

After the CSHO is finished at your site, the next question is “What to do while waiting for OSHA?

  • Document the Walk.  After the CSHO leaves your facility, you should have a meeting with the senior manager, the camera person, the note taker and any supervisor for the areas that were visited.  You need to document the walk and since people hear the same thing differently, everyone on the walk has a voice in this process.  List all expected violations that were noted by the CSHO.  The supervisors for the respective areas need to hear what transpired.  How you document this is entirely up to you, but I have found that using a spreadsheet allows you flexibility in the remainder of the process.  Also, if you have a work management tracking system, start entering work orders for the items that need fixing.
  • Fix what can be fixed.  Based on the areas and items that were raised by the CSHO fix what can be fixed.  This usually involves the generation and prioritization of a work list.  There may be some things that require capital expenditures, architectural or engineering designs and/or local permits, so they can’t be fixed right away but try to get the ball rolling.
  • Document what you fixed.  After you have made a repair or corrected a problem area, you need to document what was done.  For those sites that have work management tracking systems, the completed work orders will help the documentation process but also take photos of the corrections and track it on your spreadsheet or tracking system.
  • Talk to an OSHA SME or an attorney.  If your company has an in-house OHS group, you probably have an in-house subject matter expert (SME) that you can reach out to.  If you don’t you need to reach out to a SME or an attorney that know this process AND your industry.  Many safety companies have SME’s that you can use.  There is nothing more expensive than an attorney or consultant who is learning on your dime.  So take time to select the right consultant/SME/attorney.  With the consultant, research all potential findings you are aware of.  Note on your spreadsheet or tracking mechanism the OSHA regulation corresponds to each potential finding.  Also, review with the consultant all of your completed and planned repairs and corrections, there may be other options to address your potential violations.
  • Meet regularly to discuss your progress.  Regular meetings are important to discuss the progress and well as to remind everyone of the importance of what is still to be done.  Often, the latest fire gets all of the attention.

In a future post, we will discuss – Part II – What do you do when you receive the citation?


About homelandsafety

John Burke, CSP, ARM is currently seeking new opprtunties in the Safety and Risk Managment field. Previously, John was manager of health and safety compliance of Homeland Safety. John is a Certified Safety Professional and holds a designation as an Associate in Risk Management. He has been in the safety business since 1997 as a safety consultant, developer of emergency response plans, trainer and safety engineer and manager. John was also a Facility Security Officer and trainer under DHS/USCG regulations. Prior to joining Homeland, John was a technical consultant for a major insurance company and environmental and safety manager for a NY based utility. John also has experience as a firefighter and EMT. John has been an authorized OSHA construction outreach instructor and has developed and conducted training courses for construction and general safety, fire safety, incident command and emergency response. John previously taught first aid and CPR under the American Red Cross. John is a former marine engineer. He graduated from the US Merchant Marine Academy (BS), Adelphi University (MBA), and NY Institute of Technology (Graduate Certificate).
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4 Responses to Knock, Knock – What To Do When OSHA Shows Up

  1. Dr.Laura Helmrich-Rhodes,CSP says:

    Great article with advice that is in agreement with all that I have experienced! An additional reminder to mgt to always be sure you are doing what you said you would be doing at ALL locations even years following a citation. Keep up the great info to American business-they need all the help the can get!

  2. It also helps to let your OSHA counsel know when the inspectors arrive. When my clients do, I can instruct them to take notes for my use (if needed) and to mark these observational notes “privileged and confidential – prepared at direction of counsel in anticipation of litigation.” they send me a copy to hold onto. If litigation ensues, the notes remain privileged and cannot be obtained by OSHA in discovery. Very important!

    • Adele, great comment and very applicable to anyone who has an OSHA counsel on call or part of their company. The concept of “attorney client work product” is very important to protect sensitive observations by knowledgeble parties from being discovered and used by plantiffs attorneys in GL suits. I think that there is little value during the course of a typical OSHA inspection since there is little chance of litigation and since OSHA’s notes and reports are all discoverable under a FOIA filing. However, there may be great value if the inspection was triggered by an accident where serious injuies or death has occurred. Thank you for your comment.

  3. I believe that denying OSHA and finding ways to escape from OSHA is not a good idea.
    We should be prepare for it, because it is for our own safety. OSHA standard are made to provide safety to employees, this is for our benefit.
    Anyways thanks for this blog post.

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