The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a United States government agency that oversees workplace safety regulations. As a division of the U.S. Department of Labor, OSHA’s goal is to monitor and improve the health and safety of all working men and women in the U.S. by creating and enforcing baseline standards for working environments.
OSHA also provides training, outreach, education, and assistance related to a number of occupational health and safety topics for employees and employers alike. Some of these topics are industry-based, some are role-based, and some have broad applications for businesses and professionals of all kinds.
History of OSHA
OSHA was established in 1971 when the United States Congress passed the bipartisan Occupational Safety and Health Act. (The law was signed by President Richard Nixon in December 1970, but it did not take effect until April 1971.) This legislation was a direct response to rising trends in workplace fatality, illness, and injury rates.
Since its inception, the agency has created a wide variety of policies and programs that seek to eliminate workplace hazards at every level. Some of these include standards limiting workplace exposure to asbestos, requiring appropriate facilities to farmworkers, protecting construction workers from fatal falls, and requiring employers to provide necessary personal protective equipment for workers.
Notable programs include:
- The OSHA Training Institute (OTI), a nationwide network of OSHA-certified, nonprofit educational centers that provide training to all types of workers
- The Susan Harwood Training Grant Program, which provides financial assistance to employees and employers seeking training or education in high-hazard workplaces
- The Outreach Training Program, which provides certification of OSHA training completion
- The Alliance Program, which coordinates OSHA training programs for major labor unions, professional associations, community organizations, and government agencies
The Occupational Safety and Health Act details OSHA’s jurisdiction, the rights and responsibilities of employees and employers, and general health and safety standards for organizations of all types.
The OSH Act applies to most private sector employers as well as all federal government agencies. Twenty-two states and territories have OSHA-approved occupational health and safety programs that manage compliance. All other states and territories fall under direct OSHA supervision.
The OSH Act does not apply to those who work in state or local governments, are self-employed, are immediate family members of farm owners, or those whose work-related hazards are regulated by another federal agency like the Department of Energy or the Coast Guard.
Employee and employer rights and responsibilities
Under the OSH Act, employers must provide a safe workplace. Prominent employer responsibilities include:
- Provide a workplace free from serious recognized hazards
- Use visual warnings to make employees aware of potential hazards
- Ensure employees have the proper tools and equipment for doing their job safely
- Maintain easily accessible operating procedures for employees to follow
- Provide employees with training for working with hazardous materials
- Provide medical examinations and training as required to meet compliance
- Report all work-related illnesses, injuries, and fatalities to OSHA and provide access to records of such incidents upon request
- Not discriminate against employees who report OSHA violations
Additionally, employeeshave the right to demand a safe workplace without fear of retaliation from their employer. Prominent employee rights include:
- Receive occupational health and safety training in an understood language
- Use equipment and machinery that is safe
- Receive necessary protection and safety equipment
- Avoid direct contact or prolonged exposure with toxic chemicals
- Request an OSHA inspection
- Report and injury or illness and receive a copy of medical records
- Review workplace inspection results
Health and safety standards
OSHA maintains and enforces hundreds of health and safety standards across numerous industries and types of jobs. These range from properly using a ladder to avoid injury to guidance for working with hazardous materials like nitrous oxide and flammable liquids.
OSHA has standards for appropriate protective equipment, machinery safety, and the availability of appropriate vaccinations and medical testing. The agency has also issued health guidelines for workers who spend most of their time working at a computer.
OSHA compliance and enforcement
Employers must take necessary steps to prove that they are compliant with OSHA regulations. If an employer is found to be in violation of an OSHA standard, the consequences can range in severity depending on the impact the violation has on employees.
Typically, minor violations or hazards can incur a citation or a small fine. In instances of severe violations and hazards that significantly impact employees’ occupational wellbeing, OSHA can issue daily fines worth thousands of dollars. Repeated violations can incur hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
OSHA is sometimes involved with disaster relief and crisis response efforts. If the disaster is the result of an employer’s negligence or oversight, OSHA will issue citations and/or fines and provide aid to impacted employees. In natural or unpreventable disasters, OSHA works to ensure first responders have what they need to do their jobs safely. Examples of OSHA’s relief assistance include:
- Exxon Valdez oil spill (1989)
- Phillips 66 explosion in Pasadena, Texas (1989)
- Imperial Foods Fire in Hamlet, North Carolina (1991)
- September 11th terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. (2001)
- Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf States (2005)
- BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill (2010)