Stages of an OSHA Inspection

OSHA's Mission

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has an official mission statement:

With the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, Congress created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for workers by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education, and assistance.

Enforcing should be a key word within OSHA’s mission statement for employers to pay careful attention to. Not all employers comply, and enforcement of occupational regulations along with subsequent penalties and fines are commonplace.

So just how does OSHA enforce their standards? The short answer is through inspections.


Applicable OSHA Regulations

Many employers are aware of their respective and industry applicable OSHA regulations, most namely:

However, if employers wish to explore specific information regarding OSHA’s process for inspections, those are found within:

  • Inspections, Citations and Proposed Penalties 29 CFR 1903


Authority to InspectOSHA Inspection

OSHA Compliance Safety and Health Officers (CSHOs) are authorized to enter without delay and at reasonable times any factory, plant, establishment, construction site, or other area, workplace or environment where work is performed by an employee of an employer; to inspect and investigate during regular working hours and at other reasonable times, and within reasonable limits and in a reasonable manner, any such place of employment, and all pertinent conditions, structures, machines, apparatus, devices, equipment and materials therein; to question privately any employer, owner, operator, agent or employee; and to review applicable records.


What can trigger an OSHA inspection?

Several factors can trigger an inspection by OSHA. They include:

  • Programmed inspections- These are typically focused on high hazard industries and/or workplaces and applicable injury/illness counts.
  • Incidents/catastrophes- These include reportable injuries, including worker fatalities, hospitalizations, amputations, and loss of an eye. There are also major events such as explosions and structural collapses that often get local and national media coverage.
  • Complaints/Referrals- This is one of the most common factors whereby an employee exercising their OSHA Whistleblower Protection Program rights notifies OSHA about workplace conditions. Also, another agency, authority, company, or individual may refer and report to OSHA an observation of a hazardous condition or act. OSHA will give an imminent danger condition the highest priority.
  • Chance- Yes, many inspections are triggered simply because an OSHA CSHO observed something that caught their attention such as a crane off in the distance, numerous workers on a rooftop that don’t appear to be using fall protection, ladders coming out of an excavation, and improper equipment operation.
  • Follow-up inspections- These are common, mostly when violations are found during an inspection. Citations are issued requiring a correction by the employer.


OSHA Inspection Process

There are three basic stages to the OSHA inspection process. They include:

1. Opening conference- After an OSHA CSHO introduces themselves to the employer and displays their official credentials, they will meet with an employer representative and cover the following:

Why they are there

The scope of the inspection

The procedures they will follow during the walk around

Worker representation

Need for worker interviews


2. Walk around- The OSHA CSHO will be escorted during their walk around of the workplace or jobsite by a representative selected by the employer. They will typically make inquiries and/or inspections of:

Overall workplace safety and health conditions

Common workplace hazard potentials such as falls, electrocutions, struck by, and caught in between hazards

Personal protective equipment (PPE) use

Injury/illness records

Training records


3. Closing conference- After the OSHA CSHO concludes their inspection, several items are discussed with the employer. They include:

Compliance violations observed.

Corrective actions required. Depending on the severity of the violations, the OSHA CSHO may require that the employer address the hazard immediately, for instance, such as removing a dangerous piece of equipment or providing appropriate PPE to affected employees. If not an imminent danger, employers typically are given a reasonable timeline to correct the violation.

Courses of action options the employer may exercise.


Following the OSHA Inspection

The OSHA CSHO will then forward their inspection data to their respective OSHA office and Area Director. The OSHA Area Director will then determine if in fact there were compliance violations that have occurred, if a citation is warranted, and the amount of each citation. OSHA violations are categorized as follows:

  • Serious- Substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a condition which exists, or from one or more practices, means, methods, operations, or processes which have been adopted or are in use, in such place of employment unless the employer did not, and could not with the exercise of reasonable diligence, know of the presence of the violation.
  • Other Than Serious- Death or serious physical harm not a probable result from a hazardous condition.
  • Willful- The intentional disregard of an OSHA rule or of employee safety and health. This is the highest category of a serious violation which can also result in criminal charges against violators, especially if the result is a fatality, severe injury, or catastrophe.
  • Repeated- If an employer is cited for a specific violation, and through inspection history, it is determined the employer was previously cited for the same or similar violation, they can be cited for a repeat violation.
  • Posting Requirement- When OSHA issues a citation for a specific violation, a copy of that citation is required to be prominently posted at or near each place of violation referred to in the citation. If the employer fails to post a copy of the citation, they can be fined.
  • Failure to Abate- Some inspections indicate certain violations must be corrected by a specified date. If the employer fails to correct the condition by that date, they can be fined additional penalties for each day beyond the prescribed correction date.


OSHA may levy the maximum penalty amounts for these violations on the employer. The OSHA Area Director will notify the employer typically by certified mail notice of the violations with applicable proposed citation amounts. As of January 15, 2021, violation penalties are as follows:

Serious/Other-Than-Serious/Posting Requirements- $13,653.00 per violation

Failure to Abate- $13,653 per day beyond the abatement date

Willful or Repeated- $136,532.00 per violation


Not only can these civil penalties have significant financial impact to an employer’s business, but can also become a permanent part of an employer’s OSHA violation history record, potentially affecting their brand and reputation. OSHA also publishes a running list of national major compliance violations.


However, the employer has the right to contest the citations. Employers must notify OSHA in writing and postmarked within 15 working days of receipt by the employer of the notice of proposed penalty. The employer will then enter an informal conference with the issuing OSHA Director to dispute the citations, negotiate corrective actions/timelines, and/or discuss potential penalty reductions. Typically, if there is no resolve reached during the informal conference, the employer may then request a formal hearing.


For more information, OSHA has published an informative YouTube video, The OSHA Inspection Process.