Obviously, not all workplaces covered by the OSH Act can be inspected immediately. Because the worst situations need attention first, OSHA has established the following system of inspection priorities.
Imminent danger situations are given top priority. An imminent danger is any condition where there is reasonable certainty that a danger exists that can be expected to cause death or serious physical harm immediately or before the danger can be eliminated through normal enforcement procedures.
Serious physical harm is any type of harm that could cause permanent or prolonged damage to the body or which, while not damaging the body on a prolonged basis, could cause such temporary disability as to require in-patient hospital treatment. OSHA considers that "permanent or prolonged damage" has occurred when, for example, a part of the body is crushed or severed; an arm, leg, or finger is amputated; or sight in one or both eyes is lost.
This kind of damage also includes that which renders a part of the body either functionally useless or substantially reduced in efficiency on or off the job. An example: bones in a limb shattered so severely that mobility or dexterity will be permanently reduced.
Temporary disability requiring in-patient hospital treatment includes injuries such as simple fractures, concussions, burns or wounds involving substantial loss of blood and requiring extensive suturing or other healing aids.
Injuries or illnesses that are difficult to observe are classified as serious if they inhibit a person in performing normal functions, cause reduction in physical or mental efficiency or shorten life.
Health hazards may constitute imminent danger situations when they present a serious and immediate threat to life or health.
For a health hazard to be considered an imminent danger, there must be a reasonable expectation that:
Toxic substances such as dangerous fumes, dusts or gases are present, and
Exposure to them will cause immediate and irreversible harm to such a degree as to shorten life or cause reduction in physical or mental efficiency, even though the resulting harm is not immediately apparent.
Employees should inform their supervisor or employer immediately if they detect or even suspect an imminent danger situation in the workplace. If the employer takes no action to eliminate the danger, an employee or the authorized employee representative may notify the nearest OSHA office and request an inspection.
The request should identify the workplace location, detail the hazard or condition and include the employee's name, address and telephone number. Although the employer has the right to see a copy of the complaint if an inspection results, the name of the employee will be withheld if the employee so requests.
The OSHA area director reviews the information and immediately determines whether there is a reasonable basis for the allegation. If it is decided the case has merit, the area director will alert the OSHA regional administrator and the regional solicitor, and assign a compliance officer to conduct an immediate inspection of the workplace.
Upon inspection, if an imminent danger situation is found, the compliance officer will ask the employer to voluntarily abate the hazard and to remove endangered employees from exposure. Should the employer fail to do this, OSHA may apply to the nearest Federal District Court for appropriate legal action to correct the situation.
Before the OSHA inspector leaves the workplace, he or she will advise all affected employees of the hazard. Should OSHA "arbitrarily or capriciously" decline to bring court action, the affected employees may sue the Secretary of Labor to compel the Secretary to do so. Such action can produce a temporary restraining order (immediate shutdown) of the operation or section of the workplace where the imminent danger exists.
Walking off the job because of potentially unsafe workplace conditions is not ordinarily an employee right. To do so may result in disciplinary action by the employer. However, an employee does have the right to refuse (in good faith) to be exposed to an imminent danger. OSHA rules protect employees from discrimination if:
Where possible, he or she asked the employer to eliminate the danger, and the employer failed to do so; and
The danger is so imminent that there is not sufficient time to have the danger eliminated through normal enforcement procedures; and
The danger facing the employee is so grave that "a reasonable person" in the same situation would conclude there is a real danger of death or serious physical harm; and
The employee has no reasonable alternative to refusing to work under these conditions.
If an imminent danger situation is found, the compliance officer will ask the employer to voluntarily abate the hazard and to remove endangered employees from exposure. Should the employer fail to do this, OSHA, through the regional solicitor, may apply to the Federal District Court for an injunction prohibiting further work as long as unsafe conditions exist.
Second priority is given to the investigation of fatalities and accidents resulting in hospitalization of three or more employees.
Such catastrophes must be reported to OSHA by the employer within eight hours. OSHA investigates to determine the cause of such accidents, whether existing OSHA standards were violated, and whether additional standards are necessary to help avoid a recurrence of similar accidents.
Third priority is given to formal employee complaints of alleged violations of standards or of unsafe or unhealthful working conditions.
Every employee has the right to request an OSHA inspection when that employee feels he or she is in imminent danger from a hazard or when he or she feels that there is a violation of an OSHA standard that threatens physical harm. OSHA will maintain confidentiality if requested, will inform the employee of any action it takes regarding the complaint and, if requested, will hold an informal review of any decision not to inspect.
OSHA's next priority is programmed inspections aimed at specific high hazard industries, occupations, or health substances, or other industries identified in OSHA's current inspection procedures. Industries are selected for inspection on the basis of such factors as the injury incidence rates, previous citation history, employee exposure to toxic substances, or random selection. Special emphasis programs may also be developed and may be regional or national in scope, depending on the distribution of the workplaces involved.
Comprehensive safety inspections in manufacturing will be conducted normally in those establishments with lost work-day injury rates at or above the BLS national rate for manufacturing currently in use by OSHA. States with their own occupational safety and health programs may use somewhat different systems to identify industries for inspection.
A follow-up inspection determines if previously cited violations have been corrected. If an employer has failed to abate a violation, the compliance officer informs the employer that he/she is subject to "Failure to Abate" alleged violations and proposed additional daily penalties while such failure to abate or violation continues.
A records review is an examination of the employer's injury and illness records to determine whether there will be a comprehensive inspection of the workplace. The compliance officer reviews the OSHA Form 200 (log of occupational injuries and illnesses) and employment data of the establishment. Using these data, the compliance officer calculates the lost workday injury (LWDI) rate for the establishment. This figure is compared to the national average for manufacturing, published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). If the calculated LWDI rate is below the BLS rate, the compliance officer will not normally conduct a comprehensive safety inspection. If the LWDI rate is above the national average, an inspection will be conducted.