Q & A: Whistle Blower Inspections

Q & A: Whistle Blower Inspections

Question: “What criteria is used to determine if an inspection needs to happen when someone whistle blows on the company?”

Answer: Here’s everything you want to know…

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.

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