Audit, Compliance and Risk Blog

OSHA Revises Its Inspection Priority Weighting System

Posted by Jon Elliott on Tue, Nov 19, 2019

Construction workers 1The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not routinely inspect all employers, but instead allocates its inspector resources based on the agency’s evolving compliance and enforcement priorities. These priorities include a complex set of national/state/local priorities, such as “national emphasis programs (NEPs)” for process chemical safety or machine guarding, industry focus projects on primary metals industries, and site-specific responses to reported injuries or worker complaints. To meld and rationalize these overlapping priorities, OSHA headquarters periodically establishes weighting programs under which local offices tabulate inspection statistics to demonstrate inspection productivity by achieving higher overall scores. Effective October 1, 2019, OSHA has introduced a revised inspection weighting system, intended to motivate local OSHA offices to revise their inspection priorities.

How and Why Does OSHA Weight Inspections?

Until October 2015, OSHA tabulated inspections, and kept track of types and targets of inspections based on other priorities, such as NEPs or responses to workplace incidents and complaints. At that time, however, OSHA’s management took formal notice of the fact that this system encouraged local offices to maximize numbers of quick and simple inspections, and risked relative neglect of more complex and time-consuming inspections that might provide more health and safety benefits. For example, OSHA specifically noted that “a process safety management (PSM) inspection of an oil refinery, which might take months, accounted for less weight under this system than a group of concurrent safety inspections at a construction site involving several employers.”

Beginning in October 2015 (federal Fiscal Year 2016), OSHA’s Enforcement Weighting System (EWS) has assigned different numerical weights to different types of inspections, in order to recognize that some types of inspections demand more resources and/or deserve higher relative proportions of inspection resources. Most inspections receive a rating of 1 Enforcement Unit (EU), although weightings range from 1/9 EU up to 8 EU (see below).

Effective October 1, 2019 (FY 2020), OSHA will replace the EWS with a new OSHA Weighting System (OWS) that prescribes new inspection categories and weights, superseding the EWS in another attempt to focus agency resources.

How Does the OSHA Weighting System Work, and How are Weights Changing?

The new OWS creates five inspection “groups”, A though E, which include a number of sub-categories. These groups and sub-categories are listed below, with comparisons in brackets to the EWS rankings they replace:

  • Group A: Includes the most time intensive, complex, and high-priority inspections. 7 EUs
    • Criminal cases

    • Significant cases [was 8]

  • Group B: Includes inspections for high-priority hazards and those that are more complex than average and/or are of high lasting value. 5 EUs

    • Inspections following fatalities and catastrophes [was 3]

    • Chemical plant NEP and Process Safety Management (PSM) covered inspections [was 7]

  • Group C: Includes programmed inspections following an established emphasis program (EP) for hazards that are among the leading causes of death in the workplace. 3 EUs

    • Caught-in hazards—e.g., trenching, equipment operations, oil & gas

    • Electrical hazards—e.g., overhead power lines, electrical wiring methods

    • Fall hazards—e.g., scaffolds, elevated walking working surfaces

    • Struck-by hazards—e.g., highway work zones, landscaping, material handling

  • Group D: Includes programmed inspections following an established EP for priority hazards that are somewhat time intensive and are a high priority. This category also includes inspections for novel hazards and programmed inspections undertaken in conjunction with an established enforcement policy addressing associated serious safety and health hazards. 2 EUs.

    • Amputation hazards

    • Combustible dust

    • Ergonomics [was 5]

    • Federal agency inspections

    • Heat hazards [was 4]

    • Non-PEL overexposures [was 3]

    • Workplace violence hazards [was 3]

    • Permit required confined space hazards—e.g., grain storage or maritime or construction

    • Personal sampling—e.g., air contaminants or noise

    • Site specific targeting

  • Group E: Includes all other inspections not otherwise listed. 1 EU [“other” formerly included non-formal inspections and responses to complaints, with 1/9 EU weighting]

In addition, OSHA regions may submit other regional or local emphasis programs for approval and weighting if they are not already covered under items 1-4 and assign them two to three EUs.

What Now?

OSHA will now track inspections using the new OWS. If OSHA is correct that weighting factors affect the likelihood of different types of inspections, then employers should notice that most numerical rankings stay the same, or within 1 point up or down,  while the changes in weightings between the EWS and OWS are:

  • Ergonomics inspections lost 3 points, while chemical plant inspections and heat hazard inspections lost 2 points.

  • Inspections following fatalities and catastrophes gained 2 points.

It remains to be seen whether these changes in weighting factors change OSHA regional inspection priorities.

Self-Assessment Checklist 

  • Have any of the organization’s workplaces ever been inspected by OSHA?

  • Do any of the organization’s workplaces contain activities or hazards that are assigned extra weight under either of OSHA’s inspection ranking systems?

    • Ranking rises under OWS compared to EWS

    • Ranking falls under OWS compared to EWS

Where Can I Go For More Information? 

Specialty Technical Publishers (STP) provides a variety of single-law and multi-law services, intended to facilitate clients’ understanding of and compliance with requirements. 

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About the Author

Jon Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 30 years. 

Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977).

Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California's Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).

You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at:

photo credit: Jeanne Menjoulet Manufacture de la mode en construction via photopin (license)

Tags: Business & Legal, Employer Best Practices, Health & Safety, OSHA, Employee Rights, PSMS