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Keven Moore: Think your business is too small to catch an OSHA inspector’s attention? Think again

As a risk management and safety consultant, I’ve heard the common myth that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials can’t inspect companies with less than 10 employees. But this isn’t true.

Yes OSHA is a small agency and I have heard that the odds of being randomly inspected by OSHA are once every 77 years, but that comes with some footnotes:

• Number 1 – one of your employees calls in a safety complaint on you.
• Number 2 – You don’t have a fatality of serious accident.
• Number 3 – Your business doesn’t fall into a targeted industry by OSHA.

(Photo from OSHA)

OSHA cannot look over everyone’s shoulder and currently the organization, including state plans, only has approximately 1,850 inspectors for 8 million worksites and 130 million workers in all industries nationwide. That is equivalent to one OSHA inspector for every 4,324 worksites or 70,270 workers.

Pre-COVID, OSHA was conducting on average about 73,000 inspections annually which is .009% chance of having them knock on your front door. According to some online reports, during the first nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic OSHA received more complaints but performed far fewer inspections than usual.

Between February 1 and October 26, 2020, OSHA received 15 percent more complaints but performed 50 percent fewer inspections when compared to a similar period in 2019. To make matters worse, most of these inspections were not conducted on-site, even as U.S coronavirus deaths skyrocketed and many outbreaks were linked to workplace transmission.

The fact is that OSHA only has resources to inspect a tiny fraction of workplaces.

So, how does OSHA decide who gets visited and as a small business owner are you at risk for an inspection?

The myth that OSHA can’t inspect companies smaller than 10 employees couldn’t be further from the truth. The myth stems from the fact that if you have less than 10 employees then you don’t need to keep records of your OSHA recordable accidents on the OSHA 300 form.

However, OSHA covers most private sector employers and workers either through Federal OSHA guidelines or through an OSHA-approved state plan — and in most cases size is not an issue. If your business has one employee then you fall under their safety guidelines.

Here are some of the reasons that OSHA might inspect your small business:

Imminent Danger

OSHA’s top inspection priority is any situation that involves imminent danger. If there’s reasonable certainty that a danger exists that could result in death or serious harm before normal enforcement procedures can occur, OSHA can inspect your company, regardless of its size. Examples of such dangers include exposure to unguarded risks like fall hazard, electrical hazards or toxic substances.

There must be a threat of death or serious physical harm. For a health hazard, there must be a reasonable expectation that toxic substances or other health risks are present and exposure to them will shorten life or cause a substantial reduction in physical or mental efficiency. The harm caused by the health hazard does not have to happen immediately.

The threat must be immediate or imminent. This means that you must believe that death or serious physical harm could occur within a short time, for example, before OSHA could investigate the problem.

If an OSHA inspector believes that an imminent danger exists, the inspector must inform affected employees and the employer that he is recommending that OSHA take steps to mitigate the risk.

OSHA has the right to ask a federal court to order the employer to eliminate risks. They may learn of imminent danger by employee complaint or through referral by other government agencies, as well as during other inspection processes.

If OSHA learns of imminent danger, the administration will make every effort to inspect immediately, typically the same day, or within one day of being made aware of the situation.

Severe Injuries and Illnesses

OSHA requires employers to report workplace fatalities, as well as amputations, inpatient hospitalization, or loss of an eye, in a specific time frame. Fatalities must be reported within eight hours, while the other covered serious injures must be reported within 24 hours. OSHA investigates all fatalities with an inspection.

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He is also an expert witness. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both Lexington and Northern Kentucky. Keven can be reached at kmoore@higusa.com

Because of OSHA’s limited staffing issues for reportable serious injuries, OSHA will triage the report once you have reported it. Depending on the severity, age of the injured worker, number of injured workers or circumstances leading to the injury, OSHA may initiate an inspection.

OSHA also considers the history of the employer when deciding whether to inspect. Employers who are repeat offenders, have shown previous failure-to-abate condition, or have a hazard covered by a local, regional or national emphasis program are more likely to be inspected.

Employee Complaints

In the United States, employees have the right to report complaints of unsafe conditions to OSHA without fear of reprisal. OSHA follows a certain protocol for these reports and upholds strict confidentiality of the employee.

OSHA will then evaluate the complaints to decide if they have merit. The agency will respond to the employee complaint based on the nature and severity of the reported hazard, as well as the employer’s history. This may warrant an inspection, or it may warrant a letter to the employer asking for them to respond, all depending on the severity of the situation.


OSHA may also decide to inspect a small business because of reports from other people, organizations, government agencies, including health departments, or the media. In some cases, an OSHA inspector has opened up the newspaper or turned on the TV and seen somebody working in an unsafe manner only to show up to that worksite the very next day.

Being At The Wrong Place At The Wrong Time

OSHA inspectors are mobile, traveling roads and streets every day. They visit the same places we do from schools, hotels, retail establishments, and restaurants. If they happen to see one of your employees operating a piece of equipment in an unsafe manner, or if they are driving and look over and see one of your employees up on a roof or leading edge of a roof without the proper fall protection, you employee will receive that OSHA inspectors undivided attention. They may also be on a worksite to inspect another employee, but run across one of your employees working in an unsafe manner and it is their duty to act.

The importance of a strong safety culture cannot be underestimated regardless of the size of the company. If you have 5 employees or 500, as a business owner you can and will be held accountable by OSHA to ensure that your employees remain safe and healthy. Their mission is to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.

Employers can prevent many types of OSHA inspections, as well as costly consequences such as fines and even jail time, through a simple safety management system that encourages reporting of unsafe conditions and effectively correcting hazards.

It’s as simple as identifying hazards and implementing the appropriate controls to eliminate or minimize employee injuries and illnesses, which can also reduce the potential for certain inspections.

If you do not think that you have the expertise to accomplish that task, you can call OSHA and they will come out and assist you with this effort and you will not be penalized for what they find. All you have to do is the right thing, and abate the hazard once they are identified, and make the proper suggestions to keep your employees safe.

Be Safe My Friends.

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