Federal OSHA Complaint Handling Process

OSHA evaluates each complaint to determine how it can be handled best--an off-site investigation or an on-site inspection. Workers who would like an on-site inspection must submit a written request. Workers who complain have the right to have their names withheld from their employers, and OSHA will not reveal this information. At least one of the following eight criteria must be met for OSHA to conduct an on-site inspection:

  1. 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;
  2. An allegation that physical harm has occurred as a result of the hazard and that it still exists;
  3. A report of an imminent danger;
  4. 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;
  5. Inadequate response from an employer who has received information on the hazard through a phone/fax investigation;
  6. A complaint against an employer with a past history of egregious, willful or failure-to-abate OSHA citations within the past three years;
  7. Referral from a whistle blower investigator; or
  8. Complaint at a facility scheduled for or already undergoing an OSHA inspection.
Phone/Fax Investigation

OSHA's phone/fax method enables the agency to respond more quickly to hazards where none of the eight criteria listed above are met or where the employee or employee representative requests the phone/fax method. OSHA telephones the employer, describes the alleged hazards and then follows up with a fax or a letter. The employer must respond within five days, identifying in writing any problems found and noting corrective actions taken or planned. If the response is adequate, OSHA generally will not conduct an inspection. The employee who filed the original complaint will receive a copy of the employer's response. If still not satisfied, the complainant may then request an on-site inspection.

Inspection Priorities

OSHA's top priority for inspection is an imminent danger-a situation where workers face an immediate risk of death or serious physical harm. Second priority goes to any fatality or catastrophe-an accident that requires hospitalization of three or more workers. Employers are required to report fatalities and catastrophes to OSHA within eight hours.

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

Evaluating Employee Complaints

Before beginning an inspection, OSHA staff must be able to determine from the complaint that there are reasonable grounds to believe that a violation of an OSHA standard or a safety or health hazard exists. If OSHA has information indicating the employer is aware of the hazard and is correcting it, the agency may not conduct an inspection after obtaining the necessary documentation from the employer.

Complaint inspections generally are limited to the hazards listed in the complaint, although other violations in plain sight may be cited as well. The inspector may decide to expand the inspection based on his/her professional judgment or conversations with workers.

Complaints are not necessarily inspected in "first come, first served" order. OSHA ranks complaints based on the severity of the alleged hazard and the number of employees exposed. That is why lower priority complaints can often be handled more quickly using the phone/fax method than through on-site inspections.

Worker Involvement in OSHA Inspections

The OSH Act gives the workers' representative the right to accompany the OSHA inspector during the inspection. The representative is chosen by the union (if there is one) or by the employees, never by the employer.

If the employees are represented by more than one union, each union may choose a representative. Normally, the representative of each union will not accompany the inspector for the entire inspection, but will join the inspection when it reaches the area where those union members work.

Workers have a right to talk privately to the inspector on a confidential basis whether or not a workers' representative has been chosen. Workers are encouraged to point out hazards, describe accidents or illnesses that resulted from those hazards and relate past worker complaints about hazards. Workers should also inform the inspector if working conditions are not the same as usually exist in the workplace.

Keeping Workers And Worker Representatives Informed

After OSHA conducts a phone/fax investigation or an on-site inspection, the agency sends a letter to the worker or worker representative who filed the complaint outlining the findings, including citations and proposed penalties. Copies of citations also must be posted by the employer at or near the site of the violation. This assures that all workers who might be exposed to a hazard are aware of it and understand the need and the schedule for correction.

States Operating Approved Safety and Health Programs

States with OSHA-approved state plans provide the same protections to workers as federal OSHA, although they may follow slightly different complaint processing procedures. There are currently 23 states and jurisdictions operating OSHA-approved state occupational safety and health programs that cover both the private sector and state and local government authorities. Two other states operate approved state plans that cover state and local government employees only. Complaints to federal OSHA from workers in states with OSHA-approved state plans will be forwarded to the appropriate state plan for response.