What is Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) -
OSHA is a large regulatory agency of the United States Department of Labor that originally had federal visitorial powers to inspect and examine workplaces. Congress established the agency under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), which President Richard M. Nixon signed into law on December 29, 1970. OSHA’s mission is to “assure safe and healthy working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance”. The agency is also charged with enforcing a variety of whistleblower statutes and regulations. OSHA is currently headed by Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor Loren Sweatt. OSHA’s workplace safety inspections have been shown to reduce injury rates and injury costs without adverse effects to employment, sales, credit ratings, or firm survival.
The Bureau of Labor Standards in the Labor Department had covered some work safety issues since 1934. Economic boom and associated labor turnover during World War II worsened work safety in nearly all areas of the United States economy, but after 1945 accidents again declined as long-term forces reasserted themselves. In addition, after World War II new and powerful labor unions played an increasingly important role in worker safety. In the 1960s increasing economic expansion again led to rising injury rates, and the resulting political pressures led Congress to establish the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on April 28, 1971, the date that the Occupational Health and Safety Act became effective. The new agency incorporated much of what had been the Bureau of Labor Standards. George Guenther was appointed as the agency’s first director. OSHA has run a number of training, compliance assistance, and health and safety recognition programs throughout its history. The OSHA Training Institute, which trains government and private sector health and safety personnel, began in 1972. In 1978, the agency began a grantmaking program, now called the Susan Harwood Training Grant Program, to train workers and employers in reducing workplace hazards. OSHA started the Voluntary Protection Programs in 1982, which allow employers to apply as “model workplaces” to achieve special designation if they meet certain requirements.
Rights and responsibilities under OSHA law
Employers have the responsibility to provide a safe workplace.
By law, employers must provide their workers with a workplace that does not have serious hazards and must follow all OSH Act safety and health standards. Employers must find and correct safety and health problems. The OSH Act further requires that employers must first try to eliminate or reduce hazards by making feasible changes in working conditions rather than relying on personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, or earplugs. Switching to safer chemicals, enclosing processes to trap harmful fumes, or using ventilation systems to clean the air are examples of effective ways to eliminate or reduce risks. Employers must also:
- Notify OSHA within eight hours of a workplace fatality. Notify OSHA within 24 hours of all work-related inpatient hospitalizations.
- Prominently display the official OSHA Job Safety and Health – It’s the Law poster that describes rights and responsibilities under the OSH Act.
- Not retaliate or discriminate against workers for using their rights under the law, including their right to report a work-related injury or illness.
- Inform workers about chemical hazards through training, labels, alarms, color-coded systems, chemical information sheets and other methods.
- Provide safety training to workers in a language and vocabulary they can understand.
- Keep accurate records of work-related injuries and illnesses.
- Perform tests in the workplace, such as air sampling, required by some OSH Act standards.
- Provide required personal protective equipment at no cost to workers. (Employers must pay for most types of required personal protective equipment.)
- Provide hearing exams or other medical tests when required by OSH Act standards.
- Post OSHA citations and annually post injury and illness summary data where workers can see them.
Workers have the right to:
- Working conditions that do not pose a risk of serious harm.
- File a confidential complaint with OSHA to have their workplace inspected.
- Receive information and training about hazards, methods to prevent harm, and the OSHA standards that apply to their workplace. The training must be done in a language and vocabulary workers can understand.
- Receive copies of records of work-related injuries and illnesses that occur in their workplace.
- Receive copies of the results from tests and monitoring done to find and measure hazards in their workplace.
- Receive copies of their workplace medical records.
- Participate in an OSHA inspection and speak in private with the inspector.
- File a complaint with OSHA if they have been retaliated or discriminated against by their employer as the result of requesting an inspection or using any of their other rights under the OSHA.
- File a complaint if punished or retaliated against for acting as a “whistleblower” under the 21 additional federal laws for which OSHA has jurisdiction.
Temporary workers must be treated like permanent employees. Staffing agencies and host employers share a joint accountability over temporary workers. Both entities are therefore bound to comply with workplace health and safety requirements and to ensure worker safety and health. OSHA could hold both the host and temporary employers responsible for the violation of any condition.
OSHA Act coverage
The OSHA Act covers most private sector employers and their workers, in addition to some public sector employers and workers in the 50 states and certain territories and jurisdictions under federal authority. Those jurisdictions include the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Wake Island, Johnston Island, and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands as defined in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.
- Private sector employers – The OSHA Act covers most private sector employers in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and other U.S. jurisdictions—either directly through federal OSHA or through an OSHA approved state plan. State plans are OSHA-approved job safety and health programs operated by individual states instead of federal OSHA. Federal OSHA approves and monitors all state plans and provides as much as fifty percent of the funding for each program. State-run safety and health programs are required to be at least as effective as the federal OSHA program. The following 22 states or territories have OSHA-approved state programs: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming. Federal OSHA provides coverage to certain workplaces specifically excluded from a state’s plan — for example, work in maritime industries or on military bases.
- State and local governments – Workers at state and local government agencies are not covered by federal OSHA, but have OSH Act protections if they work in those states that have an OSHA-approved state program. OSH Act rules also permit states and territories to develop plans that cover only public sector (state and local government) workers. In these cases, private sector workers and employers remain under federal OSHA jurisdiction. Five additional states and one U.S. territory have OSHA approved state plans that cover public sector workers only: Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, New York, and the Virgin Islands.
- Federal government agencies – OSHA’s protection applies to all federal agencies. Section 19 of the OSH Act makes federal agency heads responsible for providing safe and healthful working conditions for their workers. OSHA conducts inspections of federal facilities in response to workers’ reports of hazards and under programs that target high hazard federal workplaces. Federal agencies must have a safety and health program that meets the same standards as private employers. OSHA issues “virtual fines” to federal agencies – following an inspection where violations are found, OSHA issues a press release stating the size the fine would be if the federal agency were a private sector employer. Under a 1998 amendment, the OSHA Act covers the U.S. Postal Service the same as any private sector employer.
- Not covered under the OSH Act – The OSH Act does not cover the self-employed, immediate family members of farm employers, or workplace hazards regulated by another federal agency (for example, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the Department of Energy, or Coast Guard).
Health and safety standards
The Occupational Safety and Health Act grant OSHA the authority to issue workplace health and safety regulations. These regulations include limits on hazardous chemical exposure, employee access to hazard information, requirements for the use of personal protective equipment, and requirements to prevent falls and hazards from operating dangerous equipment.
Since 2001, OSHA has issued the following standards:
- 2002: Exit Routes, Emergency Action Plans, and Fire Prevention Plans
- 2004: Commercial Diving Operations
- 2004: Fire Protection in Shipyards
- 2006: Occupational Exposure to Hexavalent Chromium
- 2006: Assigned Protection Factors for Respiratory Protection Equipment
- 2007: Electrical Installation Standard
- 2007: Personal Protective Equipment Payment (Clarification)
- 2008: Vertical Tandem Lifts
- 2010: Cranes and Derricks in Construction
- 2010: General Working Conditions in Shipyards
- 2012: GHS Update to the Hazard Communication Standard
- 2014: New Recordkeeping and Reporting Requirements for Employers
- 2014: Revision to Electric Power Generation, Transmission, and Distribution; Electrical Protective Equipment
- 2016: Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica
- 2016: Update General Industry Walking-Working Surfaces and Fall Protection Standards
OSHA is responsible for enforcing its standards on regulated entities. Compliance Safety and Health Officers carry out inspections and assess fines for regulatory violations. Inspections are planned for worksites in particularly hazardous industries. Inspections can also be triggered by a workplace fatality, multiple hospitalizations, worker complaints, or referrals.
OSHA is a small agency, given the size of its mission: with its state partners, OSHA has approximately 2,400 inspectors covering more than 8 million workplaces where 130 million workers are employed. In Fiscal Year 2012 (ending Sept. 30), OSHA and its state partners conducted more than 83,000 inspections of workplaces across the United States — just a fraction of the nation’s worksites. According to a report by AFL–CIO, it would take OSHA 129 years to inspect all workplaces under its jurisdiction.
Enforcement plays an important part in OSHA’s efforts to reduce workplace injuries, illnesses, and fatalities. Inspections are initiated without advance notice, conducted using on-site or telephone and facsimile investigations, performed by trained compliance officers and scheduled based on the following priorities: imminent danger; catastrophes – fatalities or hospitalizations; worker complaints and referrals; targeted inspections – particular hazards, high injury rates; and follow-up inspections. Current workers or their representatives may file a complaint and ask OSHA to inspect their workplace if they believe that there is a serious hazard or that their employer is not following OSHA standards. Workers and their representatives have the right to ask for an inspection without OSHA telling their employer who filed the complaint. It is a violation of the OSH Act for an employer to fire, demote, transfer or in any way discriminate against a worker for filing a complaint or using other OSHA rights. When an inspector finds violations of OSHA standards or serious hazards, OSHA may issue citations and fines. A citation includes methods an employer may use to fix a problem and the date by which the corrective actions must be completed. OSHA’s fines are very low compared with other government agencies. They were raised for the first time since 1990 on Aug. 2, 2016 to comply with the 2015 Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act passed by Congress to advance the effectiveness of civil monetary penalties and to maintain their deterrent effect. The new law directs agencies to adjust their penalties for inflation each year. The maximum OSHA fine for a serious violation is $12,500 and the maximum fine for a repeat or willful violation is $125,000. In determining the amount of the proposed penalty, OSHA must take into account the gravity of the alleged violation and the employer’s size of the business, good faith and history of previous violations. Employers have the right to contest any part of the citation, including whether a violation actually exists. Workers only have the right to challenge the deadline by which a problem must be resolved. Appeals of citations are heard by the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC). In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused about 1,300 workers and their families to contract the virus, with four deaths, at the Smithfield Foods packing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The governor, Kristi Noem, resisted initiating and enforcing measures to protect workers and the community. Smithfield was fined $13,494 by the Trump Administration’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for the violations. OSHA carries out its enforcement activities through its 10 regional offices and 90 area offices. OSHA’s regional offices are located in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City metropolitan area, Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle.