Taking a FIRM approach to understanding inspections

The last two columns have described the procedures and rules by which OSHA is bound when writing regulations. In this column, we’ll look at the policies and procedures for inspections. Though not as lengthy and time-consuming as writing regulations, there is an important process for conducting fair and comprehensive inspections.
By Sherman Williamson, OSHA Department of Enforcement August 1, 2006

The last two columns have described the procedures and rules by which OSHA is bound when writing regulations. In this column, we’ll look at the policies and procedures for inspections. Though not as lengthy and time-consuming as writing regulations, there is an important process for conducting fair and comprehensive inspections.

The guidance for compliance personnel regarding inspections at a workplace are found in the Field Inspection Reference Manual (FIRM), which can be found on the OSHA home page at www.osha.gov . This document consists of nine sections, many of which are routine administrative items such as the cover memo.

The core information, however, consists of four sections, each containing a single chapter. These sections describe pre-inspection procedures, inspection procedures, inspection documentation and post-inspection procedures. The chapters highlight such subjects as inspection scheduling and priority, unprogrammed inspections, conduct of inspections and types of violations. Since this is such a large and comprehensive document, I’ll briefly explain the four chapters that describe the policies and procedures.

Chapter I describes the pre-inspection procedures. It contains information on the responsibilities of compliance personnel, from the regional administrator to the compliance safety and health officer (CSHO). It also explains OSHA’s two types of inspections: programmed and unprogrammed, as well as inspection priorities (e.g., situations involving imminent danger to employees are always top priority).

Chapter II outlines precise procedures for conducting each type of inspection%%MDASSML%% from presenting credentials to the closing conference. Nearly every imaginable facet of an inspection is covered in this chapter. Subjects include: descriptions of both comprehensive and partial inspections; guidance on inspections outside of regular working hours; guidance on CSHO’s signing waivers or releases (they shouldn’t); obtaining warrants (known as “Compulsory Process”); inspections during strikes or labor disputes; trade secrets; and fatality/catastrophe investigations.

Chapter III provides the guidance for how the case file should be documented. This chapter divides the documentation process into four stages: pre-inspection; in-compliance inspection; inspection with citations to be issued; and contested citations. At each stage, the FIRM describes the minimum documentation required and the applicable OSHA forms. More documentation is usually better, of course.

Also included in this chapter is a discussion of affirmative defenses which are “any matter which, if established by the employer, will excuse the employer from a violation which has otherwise been proved by the CSHO.”

Finally, Chapter IV specifies post-inspection procedures. This includes abatement of hazards, verification of abatement and feasibility of proposed abatement. The FIRM provides guidance to CSHOs on determining whether an employer’s claim of infeasibility for a proposed abatement is acceptable. In some cases, the claims may have to be elevated to the appropriate OSHA area director for consideration. Citations and penalties are also discussed in this chapter, including minimum penalties, maximum penalties, and guidelines for assessing penalties. Other subjects covered in this chapter are informal conferences, settlement agreements, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission and follow-up inspections.

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