Reasons for an investigations

OSHA’s objective is to ensure safe workplaces for American workers. OSHA uses investigations and inspections to monitor compliance with federal workplace safety and health standards. However, the agency’s limited resources make it necessary for OSHA to prioritize its enforcement efforts. OSHA’s enforcement actions can be broadly categorized into two different processes – on-site inspections and off-site investigations.

On-site investigations

On-site inspections occur whenever OSHA identifies a need to physically inspect a worksite. In general, OSHA inspections are prioritized by the severity and urgency of the situation, as shown below:

  • Imminent danger
  • Fatality/Catastrophe
  • Complaints/Referrals
  • Programmed Inspections

The first 3 priorities are generally known as “unprogrammed” inspections because they take place at OSHA’s discretion and timeline, often as a reaction to specific circumstances. On the other hand, programmed inspections follow a more systematic, scheduled approach, even when employers do not really have an exact date for when the inspection will take place.

On its website, OSHA explains that on-site inspections based on an employee’s complaint take place only when at least one of the following criteria is met: 

  • A written, signed complaint by a current employee or employee representative with enough detail to enable OSHA to determine that a violation or danger likely exists that threatens physical harm or that an imminent danger exists;
  • An allegation that physical harm has occurred as a result of the hazard and that it still exists;
  • A report of an imminent danger;
  • A complaint about a company in an industry covered by one of OSHA’s local or national emphasis programs or a hazard targeted by one of these programs; 
  • Inadequate response from an employer who has received information on the hazard through a phone/fax investigation;
  • A complaint against an employer with a past history of egregious, willing or failure-to-abate OSHA citations within the past three years;
  • Referral from a whistleblower investigator; or
  • Complaint at a facility scheduled for or already undergoing an OSHA inspection.

Off-site Investigations

Off-site investigations are generally conducted via phone and fax. This type of investigation allows OSHA to respond quickly in situations where none of the criteria for on-site inspections applies. During an investigation, employers must respond to OSHA requests and inquiries within 5 days.

An off-site investigation may lead into an on-site inspection if employers fail to respond within the 5-day window information discovered during the investigation meets the criteria for an on-site inspection or the person who submitted the complaint is not satisfied with the results of the investigation and requests an on-site inspection.