When does an employee complaint result in an OSHA inspection?

Date Posted: 07/31/2023
Hand holding a cell phone with OSHA queued up on the screen

Employees who don’t feel comfortable reporting concerns to their employer might call OSHA to complain. Worse, if an employee did report to the employer but got no response, the employee might then call OSHA. But will those complaints result in an OSHA inspection?

A complaint made anonymously or claiming vague allegations that don’t suggest violations might cause OSHA to follow up with a phone call, but won’t necessarily bring OSHA knocking on your door. However, certain elements of employee complaints increase the likelihood of OSHA showing up. These include:

  1. The employee provides a written and signed complaint that an injury occurred and the hazard still exists, or the complaint indicates imminent danger.
  2. The concern relates to a current emphasis program, like heat stress or amputation hazards.
  3. The employer received an egregious, willful, or failure-to-abate citation in the last three years.
  4. The facility is currently undergoing an OSHA inspection, or OSHA was already planning to inspect the facility for some reason.
  5. OSHA followed up via phone with the employer regarding the complaint, but the employer’s response was deemed inadequate.

Not all of the above elements need to be in place, and just one might result in an inspection. However, if the complaint happens to check several boxes, OSHA is more likely to visit your facility in response to the complaint.

Evaluating complaints

Before starting an inspection, OSHA will determine if the complaint offered reasonable grounds to believe that a violation exists. If OSHA finds that the employer is aware of the hazard and is correcting it (based on documentation the employer provided), the agency might not conduct an inspection.

When complaint inspections do occur, the inspection is generally limited to the hazards listed in the complaint. Of course, other violations in plain sight could get cited as well. Also, inspectors may expand the inspection based on their professional judgment or based on conversations with workers.

OSHA doesn’t necessarily follow up on complaints in the order they get reported. OSHA ranks complaints based on the severity of the alleged hazard and the number of employees exposed. Complaints deemed low-priority might get handled via phone or fax rather than on-site inspections.

Prioritizing complaints

OSHA’s top priority is imminent danger situations where workers face an immediate risk of death or serious physical harm.

Second priority goes to any fatality or catastrophe, such as an accident that requires hospitalization of three or more workers.

Third priority is employee complaints and referrals from other agencies.

Lower inspection priorities include inspections targeted toward high hazard industries, planned inspections in other industries, and follow-up inspections to determine whether previously cited violations have been abated.

Avoiding complaints

Not every employee complaint will result in an OSHA inspection. It might only result in a phone call from OSHA. Still, the best way to avoid a complaint-related inspection is to ensure that employees don’t have cause to contact OSHA. A combination of maintaining compliance, emphasizing safety, and encouraging employees to report concerns (along with promptly and effectively addressing those reports) helps create a work environment where employees won’t feel the need to call OSHA.

How Safety Management Suite Can Help

Conducting self-audits can not only keep employees safe, but can help them understand your emphasis on rapidly identifying and eliminating hazards. The Audits feature in the J. J. Keller® SAFETY MANAGEMENT SUITE provides numerous ready-to-use checklists to help identify possible violations. Performing self-audits can not only help eliminate hazards, but help identify risks before anyone gets hurt.

E-mail Newsletter

Sign up to receive the weekly EHS Insider email newsletter for safety articles, news headlines, regulatory alerts, industry events, webcasts, and more.