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OSHA FAQ for Employers

Small-business owners sometimes downplay job safety hazards at their work sites. When an office or small workshop has fewer than 50 people working there, it's easy to think everyone knows the rules. Ordering family members to follow safety regulations can be embarrassing in a family-run business. Everyone at work is an adult and a professional, so there should be no need for workplace safety rules.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a federal agency. It oversees safety for workers in large and small businesses. Even companies with two employees must follow OSHA regulations. Employers must create and maintain a safe workplace by following OSHA regulations. The federal government develops OSHA requirements based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

Here are frequently asked questions about OSHA for employers.

What are employer responsibilities under OSHA?

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act) requires all employers to provide workers with a safe, hazard-free work environment. You must comply with OSHA standards and regulations.

Businesses with 11 or more employees are subject to OSHA recordkeeping requirements. Companies with fewer employees and in low-risk industries are exempt from recordkeeping unless OSHA requests it.

All employers must display OSHA safety posters at their worksites. OSHA provides these posters free of charge. Employers must also notify workers about any hazardous chemicals present in the workplace. Keep Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) where every employee can access the information.

What records do employers have to keep on injuries?

Businesses with 11 or more employees must keep records of all occupational injuries and illnesses as they occur. Low-risk businesses like retail, finance, or insurance may not need to keep records. OSHA may order some high-risk companies with fewer employees to maintain injury records.

OSHA requests these records as part of their inspection process. OSHA investigates all reports of serious injuries or fatalities. It may also investigate businesses that report too many minor workplace injuries in a short time.

What triggers an OSHA inspection?

In general, OSHA may request access to investigate working conditions wherever there are workers. OSHA inspectors can conduct investigations during regular work hours or other reasonable times if work hours are inconvenient.

More often, OSHA inspections are due to one of several causes:

  • Fatality/Accident Inspections: These occur after an employer files a report of a death or serious on-the-job injury. Injuries that trigger an inspection include hospitalization, amputation, or loss of an eye. An employee report of an injury may also trigger an inspection.
  • Imminent Danger Inspections: OSHA conducts these after receiving a report that a condition of immediate danger exists at the site. These inspections have the highest priority. OSHA carries them out on the day of the report or within 24 hours.
  • Complaint-Based Inspections: These are responses to complaints from workers or representatives. They look for potential hazards at the job site. OSHA notifies the employer of the complaint with the name of the reporting worker redacted.
  • Programmed Inspections: These are random inspections based on neutral criteria. The U.S. Department of Labor sometimes orders inspections for a national special emphasis program.
  • Follow-up Inspections: OSHA may conduct follow-up inspections to ensure compliance with abatement or corrective measures.

What do OSHA inspectors look for?

OSHA inspectors look for different things, depending on the type of worksite and the nature of the claim or possible hazard. In a programmed or random inspection, inspectors will first check any paperwork to be sure all documents comply with OSHA standards. The walkaround inspection examines the workplace for health hazards and may look for any of these items:

  • Personal Protective Equipment: All workplaces should have masks and gloves, even if you are not a health care provider. If you are a health facility, OSHA may check your compliance with state health regulations.
  • Safety and Health Programs: Workplace hazards differ depending on your industry and location. A construction site in California has different concerns than one in Kansas. Your safety program should reflect the local risks.
  • First Aid and Medical Services: Even a two-person office should have a basic first aid kit. Larger companies should have access to medical services. Some may need someone on-site with basic medical training.
  • Safety Training and Implementation Programs: A program is good, but the inspector also wants proof that you and your workers practice the techniques.
  • General Industry Concerns: Inspectors look for blocked exits, unlit stairwells, and open containers of chemicals. Keep everything in good working order, no matter your business type.

Following the inspection, the inspector will discuss any violations and issue citations. They should provide a deadline for abatement and correction of any violations. You should ask about anything that seems unclear or confusing. Ask for clarifications immediately because you only have 15 days to file a Notice of Intent to Contest your citations.

What types of citations does OSHA issue?

When you receive a state or federal OSHA citation, you must post it near the location of the violation or concern. This is one of your duties following an OSHA inspection. Your employees must know of the hazard and any efforts to correct or mediate the problem.

There are five basic types of citations:

  • Willful is an intentional disregard for OSHA requirements or a gross disregard for employee safety or health. The employer knew of the OSHA requirements and intentionally ignored them or decided there was no risk to the workers.
  • Serious citations mean there is a substantial probability of death or serious physical harm. A safety hazard exists that the employer was aware of and did not make any effort to correct. The employer may request an exemption if the hazard is one that the employer was unaware of before the citation.
  • Other-than-serious citations are hazards unlikely to cause serious injury or death. The employer still needs to fix them by the deadline.
  • De minimis issues are those where the employer has corrected a hazard in a manner different from the one specified by regulations. These matters are not cited.
  • Failure to abate means an issue previously cited was not corrected, and a second investigation found the same violation.

Repeated offenders may receive civil penalties beyond OSHA citations and fines if they continue to receive citations for the same or similar violations.

How can I contest OSHA citations?

You must file your Notice of Intent to Contest within 15 days of receiving the citation. You must do this even if you told the investigator you planned to contest the citation. Employers have the right to request an informal meeting with the OSHA area director to discuss the citation. You may want to do this to better understand the violations and standards. You can also negotiate a settlement agreement or alternate abatement procedures or dates.

If you want to contest the citation, your Notice of Intent must state the exact nature of the objection and what you are contesting, such as the date, the type of violation, or the specific section of the citation. For instance, if you agree with the rest of the citation, you can still object to Item 3.

Contesting the citation is a legal proceeding reviewed by an administrative law judge. If you plan to contest any OSHA citation, you should consult a business law attorney.

Can I request an OSHA consultation for my small business?

OSHA's Compliance Assistance Specialists (CAS) provide consultation services for all businesses requesting help with OSHA compliance. Both the main office and the state plan offices offer these services.

An OSHA CAS specialist will provide general outreach to your business about OSHA compliance. These specialists give workshops and discussions about workplace safety, recordkeeping, and safety training.

Business owners can request an on-site consultation through the state area offices. These consultations are separate from the inspection programs. They are confidential, and the consultant will not issue citations. An on-site consultation aims to locate any potential cause of work-related injury and correct it before an inspection. The only requirement is to correct any potential hazards before your next inspection.

The state area office consultation can also assist small-business owners with setting up their safety and health programs and improving their existing plans.

How can I get legal help with OSHA compliance?

Small-business owners have the same responsibilities to maintain a safe workplace as the owners of large companies. When you have questions about OSHA safety compliance or need to contest an OSHA citation, contact a business law attorney in your area.

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