OSHA warrantless inspections: Marshall v. Barlow's Inc.

Did you know that OSHA inspectors could be required to obtain a warrant before performing a workplace inspection?

Although the Secretary of Labor was granted the ability to conduct warrantless inspections of worksites to allow for identification of potential safety hazards and OSHA violations under Section 8(a) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, that may not always be the case. An individual named Bill Barlow owned an electrical and plumbing installation business in Pocatello, Idaho, called Barlow’s Inc.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 1975, an OSHA inspector arrived at Barlow’s Inc., informing Mr. Barlow that his business was chosen in the agency selection process for an OSHA inspection. To perform the inspection, the inspector was asking for access of non-public work areas. As outlined in the OSH Act, the OSHA inspector was not explicitly required to have a warrant in order to perform the inspection. Mr. Barlow denied the inspector’s request to access non-public work areas, claiming that it was a violation of his Fourth Amendment right to protect his business from the warrantless inspection. As a result, Mr. Barlow was presented with an order from the District of Idaho three months after the incident, demanding him to permit inspection of his business. Once again, Mr. Barlow refused entry to the inspector, stating that the warrantless inspection violates his Fourth Amendment rights, outlined in the United States Constitution.

On Dec. 30, 1976, a District Court ruled in favor of Barlow, stating that under the Fourth Amendment, warrantless inspections are unconstitutional. In other words, the court ruled that a warrant is needed for the inspections that OSHA conducts at worksites and facilities. The Secretary of Labor appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, stating that OSHA inspections are considered “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment. On May 23, 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that warrantless OSHA inspections of occupational establishments violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

KNOW YOUR RIGHTS! Although a company can request an OSHA inspector to obtain a permit to enter a workplace, workers have the right to report unsafe and hazardous conditions. Remember to document unsafe or hazardous conditions that you see or report.