Understanding the types of violations observed during inspections is a requirement for correctly citing a violation and providing quality feedback to the facility operator. Breakdowns in this chain of communication can lead to additional inspections and possible enforcement actions, which waste valuable time, money, and effort. To ensure that this chain is firm, inspectors are provided with access to training and continuing education, as needed, to properly identify violations and apply their guiding regulations.1

Every inspector starts their career learning the violations for the specific category of facilities that they will inspect, the reasoning behind those violations, and the corrective actions for those violations. They memorize the common section and code numbers for specific citations, and as their experience grows, so do their knowledge and expertise. They undergo progressive training from observing inspections to conducting their own inspections under supervision until they go out on their own.

Most inspectors address common violations with learned-response corrective actions. To assist inspectors with addressing violations that are not clearly written in their regulatory source documents, many agencies create guides, "cheat sheets," or formatted inspection reports for the inspectors to use. Modern technology now allows inspectors to immediately contact someone with voice, text, and photos if they have a question or run into an issue that requires assistance, but mistakes still happen. As regulatory officials, we have all seen violations that were a blatant error, a little stretched, possibly taken out of context, or just made up due to lack of training or bias.

To address those times when inspectors are faced with a situation that is suspected of being a violation, or a violation that they cannot confidently cite, it is helpful to look at violations based on the corrective or preventive actions that need to be taken. Five types of violations are presented:

1.     Direct hazard violations

2.     One-step violations

3.     Precursor and preventive violations

4.     Complex violations

5.     Regulatory/administrative violations.  

Types of Violations

Direct hazard violations are obvious violations that need little explanation to the facility operator and usually require an immediate corrective action. Examples of these types of violations are bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat food (direct contamination), rotten/spoiled food, and sewage backup in a food preparation or storage area.

One-step violations are likely the most common type of violation observed by inspectors. These violations are those that, on the surface, require one step for a hazard to occur, such as food in the temperature danger zone (faster spoilage), uncovered food (contamination), or soiled ventilation (falling debris can contaminate food).

Precursor and preventive violations can directly lead to a "one-step violation," or they may take time to develop. Examples of this type of violation include damaged floors (unable to be cleaned properly, leading to a contaminated environment), damaged refrigeration door gaskets (improper food temperatures), improper date marking (spoiled food), outside doors not sealed (pest infestation), and missing floor drain covers (pest entry and drain damage).

Complex violations usually require more time to understand and investigate. Many are violations that come from reference documents and regulations not covered in depth during training, or violations that require assumptions to be made. Examples of such violations are a lack of a grease trap/interceptor (fat oils and grease buildup damages sewers and drains over time), missing backflow prevention devices (contamination can enter a potable water supply through cross-connections2), and sealed vacuum packaged fish above 3.3 °C (38 °F) (risk of non-proteolytic Clostridium botulinum3).

Regulatory and administrative violations may be unique to a specific field and are more concerned with maintaining good order, general public health, and safety than with preventing hazards. Regulatory/administrative violations also usually have enforcement actions, such as civil penalties, attached to them. Some examples of these violations include failure to submit construction plans before starting construction on a regulated business, improper or inadequate employee training and certification, and defaults on other permitting and licensing requirements.

Simplify Thinking about Violations

When faced with a suspected violation that is not easily identified, the inspector must first think about the possible hazard. Then, with the hazard in mind, the inspector must conduct a thought experiment on how the observed suspected violation leads to the hazard. It is vital that this is kept simple. If the inspector starts to think in terms of too many "what ifs," they will end up down a rabbit hole that ends at a well-intended citation of an observation that is not a violation.

The philosophy of Occam's razor should be applied, instead. Once the direct flow from violation to hazard is established, the inspector should then determine the type of violation present. More than likely, it will be either a one-step or precursor/preventive violation. It should not fall into the direct or regulatory/administrative violation types, as these are obvious violations that should be immediately discernable. If the inspector finds that it is a complex violation, extreme caution should be taken; without strong regulatory support, the observation is not a violation, and the risk of making an error is greater.  

Although it may not fit every inspector in every field, thinking about different types of violations in terms of the corrective or preventive actions to be taken may help open the door to deeper discussions, training, and understanding. With deeper understanding, the goals of protecting public health, identifying potential hazards, and providing feedback to facility operators can be better achieved.


  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2017. Food Code §8-402.10.B.
  2. International Code Council. 2015. International Plumbing Code. "Code Notes: Backflow Preventers and Protection of Water Supply."
  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2018. "Controlling the Hazard of Clostridium botulinum Growth and Toxin Formation in Reduced Oxygen Packaged Fish and Fishery Products Including Refrigerated, Vacuum-Packed Crawfish Tail Meat."

Aaron Burden, M.S.E.S., R.E.H.S./R.S., is an Environmental Health Supervisor with the Allegheny County Health Department in Pennsylvania. He served 22 years in the U.S. Army and Pennsylvania National Guard, where he was an Assistant Inspector General for four years. He is also a National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) registered Environmental Health Specialist/Registered Sanitarian. He holds a master's degree in environmental studies from Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and is pursuing a law degree at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.