How OSHA Works: Injuries, Inspections & Workers' Rights

Since 1970, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has been the nation’s highest authority for workplace safety. It creates and enforces the health/safety standards that apply to nearly every workplace (with some exceptions). OSHA issues fines to enforce its regulations, the proceeds of which go to the federal government’s general fund—making it a relatively low-cost federal agency.

OSHA is how workers assert their right to a safe workplace. Anonymous workers who fear for their safety have the right to request an OSHA inspection without fear of retaliation, which gives concerned workers a little power to improve safety.

But how does OSHA actually work? Does it actually accomplish what it tries to do? Our article takes a look.

OSHA Is Overstretched

OSHA’s power is limited by the relatively small staff of inspectors. There are 1,850 inspectors responsible for 8 million workplaces, which means the average inspector is responsible for 4,300 worksites.

But how many inspections did the average OSHA official carry out in 2023? 18.

In other words, OSHA is stretched extremely thin. There’s no way for the agency to inspect every workplace, so they prioritize site inspections according to the level of risk.

OSHA prioritizes site inspections according to worksites:

  • Facing imminent accident
  • With a recent severe injury or illness
  • Named in a worker complaint
  • Referred by other agencies, organizations, or the media
  • Targeted by OSHA for exceptionally high injury rates
  • Requiring follow-up on a previous inspection

Any worker can report unsafe conditions at their job site, and OSHA will prioritize inspection ahead of everything except imminent or recent accidents. As a result of this arrangement, OSHA is often involved in the protection of whistleblower rights.

3 Parts of an OSHA Inspection

Before an inspection, the OSHA compliance officer gathers all the data from previous inspections, reports, and other sources to review which standards will apply to the job site. They’ll also equip themselves with appropriate protective equipment and measuring devices for the hazards they’re likely to test for.

The whole inspection includes three portions:

  • Opening conference
  • Walkaround
  • Closing conference

Once a compliance officer arrives on site, they’ll offer up their credentials to the employer. Once their identity is verified via a photograph and a serial number, the compliance officer initiates the “opening conference.”

At the opening conference, OSHA reveals the reason for the inspection and the scope of its investigation. An employer assigns an authorized representative to join the compliance officer for their inspection; if the employees have their own representative, he or she has the right to join the inspection as well. The compliance officer will also discuss with the employer how many employees they plan on privately consulting throughout the inspection.

Afterward, the compliance officer begins the walkaround portion of the inspection. They’ll review injury and accident records, cite safety violations, and point out any hazards that can be immediately corrected. They’ll also privately discuss safety conditions with a variety of workers while minimizing work interruption.

Finally, the compliance officer and the employer and employee representatives meet to discuss findings in the closing conference. They’ll also make clear the rights of workers to a safe workplace and against retaliation, particularly if the inspection was prompted by a whistleblower. The compliance officer will also clarify the deadline for correcting violations that aren’t able to be resolved immediately.

Does OSHA Inspect Every Site On Its List?

For lower-priority inspections, OSHA might be satisfied with a phone or fax ‘inspection.’ In these situations, OSHA will call the employer and ask for a description of any safety or health concerns, particularly any concerns that were brought up in a worker complaint. The employer will then have five days to fax a response with a description of what problems they discovered and their solution.

The employer is incentivized to be thorough with self-inspection because if OSHA is satisfied with their response, it’ll typically decline to do an on-site inspection. All of this is done with the original complaint in mind; the worker who filed the original report has the most influence on whether an on-site inspection takes place.

Types of OSHA Penalties

OSHA citations have varying degrees of severity. The higher the severity, the larger the fine. However, with one exception, OSHA can reduce fines based on good faith, the seriousness of the violation, or the size of the business. Still, each citation comes with a minimum amount required by OSHA regulations, which are adjusted for inflation every year.

OSHA citation severity, from lowest to highest, includes:

  • Posting requirements: $0 minimum
  • Other-than-serious: $0 minimum
  • Serious: $1,190 minimum per violation
  • Failure to abate: see below
  • Willful or repeated: $11,524 minimum per violation

As of 2024, the maximum penalty for any violation other than Willful/Repeated is $16,131. For Willful/Repeated violations, the fine is ten times larger at $161,323. Failure to Abate violations are a unique case: employers get fined per day a violation isn’t corrected after the deadline. Fines will accumulate for a maximum of 30 days, typically.

OSHA Calculates Fines Using Probability & Severity

Given the wide gulf between the minimum and maximum penalties for a violation, how does OSHA determine how big a fine should be? OSHA employs a “gravity-based penalty,” or GBP. The GPB is determined using two factors: the severity of a given violation, and the probability that the violation would have led to a serious accident.

For instance, a Serious violation that has both high severity and high probability would lead to the maximum fine. A violation with low severity and high probability or high severity and low probability would receive a “moderate” GBP, with a fine in the middle of the range ($9,000 to $14,000). Citations for “Other-Than-Serious” violations automatically receive the lowest GBP possible.

How Much An Employer Knows Affects the Size of the Fines

The largest fines are for Willful/Repeated violations, but the only regulatory difference between Serious and Willful/Repeated violations is the employer’s knowledge or past record.

Serious violations are for hazards that might cause serious injury or illness that the employer did not or could not have known about. Willful violations are for serious hazards that the employer “plainly” knew about and treated with indifference. Repeated violations are for hazards that a worksite has previously been cited for.

Our firm has extensive experience with employers who knew or should have known about a given hazard. We know that even a fine of $161,000 or so isn’t enough to stop their behavior; in fact, many of these companies have a record of repeated and willful violations already. In most cases, only verdicts in the hundreds of millions have the power to force these companies to change, and those verdicts can only come from workers who’ve been injured and must fight for what they need in court.

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