How to Prepare for Increased OSHA COVID-19 Workplace Inspections

Posted in COVID-19, Legal Alerts on November 6, 2020

SARS-CoV-2, known commonly as the novel coronavirus or COVID-19, has caused economic uncertainty and increased scrutiny on safety in the workplace. To help business owners adapt to new protocols and help slow the spread of the virus, OSHA has issued new guidance about increasing the frequency of inspections and new record keeping requirements. Being prepared for unexpected OSHA inspections ahead of time can help your employees and your business stay safe during the pandemic.

OSHA altered its COVID-19 response plan on May 26, 2020 as "the government and the private sector have taken rapid and evolving steps to slow the virus's spread, protect workers, and adapt to new ways of doing business." With these protections in place, OSHA plans to conduct more frequent in-person inspections based on COVID-19’s geographic spread.

Geographic Areas In Which The Spread of COVID-19 Has Decreased Significantly

In geographic areas where the spread of COVID-19 has decreased over time and remains at lower levels, OSHA will return to its inspection plans relied upon before the start of the pandemic. When prioritizing reported events for inspections, however, OSHA will prioritize coronavirus cases over others. When performing the inspections, OSHA will utilize phone investigations or rapid-response investigations when necessary to address formal complaints. Inspectors will take appropriate precautions and use personal protective equipment (PPE) when performing any inspections related to COVID-19.

Geographic Areas with Consistently Elevated Community Transmission Rates

In geographic areas with sustained community virus transmission rates, OSHA will not return to its previous inspection plans. Instead, OSHA will prioritize fatalities and immediate risk of virus exposure for inspection. OSHA may choose to conduct on-site inspections for high-risk worksites and worksites with high numbers of reported complaints or known COVID-19 cases. Some high-risk workplaces have limitations for on-site inspections and OSHA’s response plan directs inspectors to work within these limitations by initiating inspections remotely via phone or videoconference with the expectation that an on-site component of the inspection will be performed when/if the resources become available to do so. If an inspection can neither be completed on-site nor remotely, OSHA will investigate these workplaces using a rapid-response investigation to identify hazards, provide assistance in correcting issues, and to confirm abatement.

OSHA has detailed in previously released guidance for inspections that fatalities, imminent danger situations, and “high” risk exposure instances will be prioritized for investigation. OSHA will generally not conduct inspections of employers in “medium” or “low” risk exposure categories, except in egregious situations.

What Triggers an OSHA Inspection?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, OSHA inspections may have been conducted at random, and companies could be chosen from a list of facilities that falls under certain criteria. Inspections were also conducted after an employee filed a complaint with OSHA regarding the health and safety of the work site.

COVID-19 has OSHA prioritizing the following triggers for inspection:

  • Imminent danger situations. If OSHA receives information that employees are being exposed to a hazard that could cause death or serious physical harm, an inspection will take place. The inspector will ask the employer to remove or correct the hazard immediately or prevent employees from interacting with the hazard. Imminent danger situations are OSHA’s highest inspection priority and high risk of COVID-19 exposure can be considered an imminent danger situation.
  • Fatalities, hospitalizations, and amputations. Any time a company has an employee admitted to the hospital or that experiences an amputation, the accident must be reported to OSHA within 24 hours. Workplace fatalities are required to be reported within eight hours. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the incident, these reports will generally lead to either a rapid-response investigation, in which OSHA will ask the company to conduct an investigation for cause and document corrective actions taken, or an in-person investigation.

COVID-19 has brought on a rise of employee complaints to OSHA, any one of which can trigger a workplace inspection. When an employee does not feel their employer is providing sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) or training to keep them safe while at work and prevent the spread of the virus, they can file a complaint. OSHA can respond to these complaints in many ways, ranging from sending a letter detailing what the company must address to fix the problem to conducting an on-site inspection.

What to Expect in an Inspection During COVID-19

To help protect their inspectors, OSHA instructed its area directors to “maximize the use of electronic means of communication (remote video surveillance, phone interviews, email correspondences, facsimile and email transmittals of documents, video conferences, etc.).”

During an on-site inspection, the compliance safety and health officer (CSHO) is expected to comply with all safety regulations and wear appropriate PPE, which includes, at a minimum, “goggles, disposable gloves, and disposable gowns or coveralls of appropriate size,” and “a fit-tested half-mask elastomeric respirator with at least an N95 filter.” If there are facility-specific PPE requirements, the CSHO must also adhere to those during the inspection. Employers are not required to provide PPE to the CSHO.

The inspection begins with the CSHO conducting an opening conference in a designated, uncontaminated administrative area, or by telephone if starting the inspection remotely. The CSHO should speak to the designated safety director or manager responsible for the company’s health and safety protocols. The CSHO will adhere to social distancing rules (maintaining a distance of at least six feet from employees) while conducting private interviews. If the interview can be conducted over the phone, that is preferable. 

The CSHO may also request to review certain documents related to the investigation, including:

  • Respiratory protection program documentation
  • Any formally written pandemic plan for the company
  • Medical records related to worker exposure incident(s)
  • OSHA recordkeeping logs
  • Documentation of the employer’s PPE plan and best efforts
  • Employee training records related to COVID-19 exposure prevention

Employers must continue to monitor OSHA's constantly changing guidance in response to COVID-19 to keep business operations running smoothly while maintaining the safety and well-being of their workers.