The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act) was passed to prevent workers from being killed or seriously harmed at work. The law requires that employers provide their employees with working conditions that are free of known dangers.
The Act created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which sets and enforces protective workplace safety and health standards. OSHA also provides information, training and assistance to workers and employers.
The mission of OSHA is to save lives, prevent injuries and protect the health of America’s workers. The OSH Act states that workers have the right to a safe workplace and that it is the employer’s responsibility to provide safe and healthy workplaces.
OSHA and its state partners have approximately 2100 inspectors, plus complaint discrimination investigators, engineers, physicians, educators, standards writers, and other technical and support personnel spread over more than 200 offices throughout the country. This staff establishes protective standards, enforces those standards, and reaches out to employers and employees through technical assistance and consultation programs.
Some of the things OSHA does to carry out its mission are:
Today, although occupational safety has come a long way, too many employees are still being injured and killed on the job. Let's take a look at some recent statistics:
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OSHA standards are rules that describe the methods that employers must use to protect their employees from hazards. There are OSHA standards for Construction work, Agriculture, Maritime operations, and General Industry, which are the standards that apply to most worksites. These standards limit the amount of hazardous chemicals workers can be exposed to, require the use of certain safe practices and equipment, and require employers to monitor hazards and keep records of workplace injuries and illnesses.
The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) is an annual codification of the general and permanent rules published in the Federal Register by the executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government. It is divided into 50 titles. Title 29 is assigned to the Department of Labor; therefore, the OSHA standards,called "Parts," are:
The Rule-making Process. Before OSHA can issue a standard, it must go through an extensive and lengthy process that includes substantial public engagement, notice, and comment periods. This is known as the OSHA Rulemaking Process.
The OSH 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.
The OSH Act encourages states to develop and operate their own job safety and health programs and precludes state enforcement of OSHA standards unless the state has an approved program. State Plans are OSHA-approved job safety and health programs operated by individual states rather than federal OSHA.
State-run safety and health programs must be at least as effective (ALAE) as the federal OSHA program. OSHA approves and monitors all state plans and provides as much as fifty percent of the funding for each program.
Currently there are 22 states in which state plans are approved for private-sector, and state and local government employees. An additional six states are approved for state and local government employees only.
Every year, OSHA publishes its "Top 10" most frequently cited violations, and through the years, the same standards appear to be at or near the top of that list. OSHA frequently sees violations related to these regulations when conducting employer inspections and accident investigations. For more on the list, visit OSHA's website.
Note that the Fall Protection and Hazard Communication standards are usually at or near the top of the list, so it makes sense to give these two programs top priority. However, because OSHA sees and cites the "Top-10" violations frequently, it's smart safety management to make sure all of the "Top-10" programs are effective. After all, the following statement is true:
"That which OSHA sees the most, is cited the most."
OSHA enforces standards through inspections. There are about 2,400 state and federal OSHA inspectors for over 7 million workplaces. At this rate, it would take about 100 years for OSHA to inspect every workplace once. Therefore, OSHA targets the most dangerous workplaces; industries with fatalities and serious injuries and construction.
The OSH Act authorizes OSHA compliance safety and health officers (CSHOs) to conduct non-notice workplace inspections at reasonable times. The OSHA inspection 3-phase process consists of:
Results can take up to 6 months, after which OSHA may issue citations. These may include fines and will include dates by which hazard must be abated. See detailed requirements in the Field Operations Manual (click on image).
These inspections are scheduled in response to alleged hazardous working conditions identified at a specific worksite. This type of inspection responds to the following four priorities:
Programmed Inspections are the most common type of inspection and are scheduled based upon objective or neutral selection criteria. Inspections within the construction industry are scheduled from a list of construction worksites, not employers.
OSHA inspectors, called Compliance Safety and Health Officers (CSHOs), are experienced, well-trained industrial hygienists and safety professionals whose goal is to assure compliance with OSHA requirements. OSHA conducts inspections without advance notice. Employers have the right to require compliance officers to obtain an inspection warrant before entering the worksite.
Preparation: Before conducting an inspection, OSHA compliance officers research the inspection history of a worksite using various data sources, review the operations and processes in use and the standards most likely to apply.
Presentation of credentials: The on-site inspection begins with the presentation of the compliance officer’s credentials, which include both a photograph and a serial number.
Opening Conference: During the opening conference, the compliance officer will explain why OSHA selected the workplace for inspection and describe the scope of the inspection, walkaround procedures, employee representation and employee interviews. The employer then selects a representative to accompany the compliance officer during the inspection.
Walkaround: Following the opening conference, the compliance officer and the representatives will walk through the portions of the workplace covered by the inspection, inspecting for hazards that could lead to employee injury or illness.
During the walkaround, compliance officers may point out some apparent violations that can be corrected immediately. While the law requires that these hazards must still be cited, prompt correction is a sign of good faith on the part of the employer.
Closing Conference: After the walkaround, the compliance officer holds a closing conference with the employer and the employee representatives to discuss the findings. The compliance officer discusses possible courses of action an employer may take following an inspection, which could include an informal conference with OSHA or contesting citations and proposed penalties.
Results: When an inspector finds violations of OSHA standards or serious hazards, OSHA may issue citations and fines. Citations describe OSHA requirements allegedly violated, list any proposed penalties and give a deadline for correcting the alleged hazards.
Appeals: When OSHA issues a citation, it also offers the employer an opportunity for an informal conference with the OSHA Area Director to discuss citations, penalties, abatement dates or any other information pertinent to the inspection. The agency and the employer may work out a settlement agreement to resolve the matter and to eliminate the hazard.
Employers have 15 working days after receipt of citations and proposed penalties to formally contest the alleged violations and/or penalties by sending a written notice to the Area Director.
The following general information on citations and penalties describes the types of violations and explains the actions the employer may take if they receive a citation as the result of an inspection. In settling a penalty, OSHA has a policy of reducing penalties for small employers and those acting in good faith. For more information on employer responsibilities, see OSHA Publication 3000, Employer Rights and Responsibilities.
Willful violation: A willful violation is cited when the employer intentionally and knowingly commits the violation. It is also cited when the employer commits a violation with plain indifference to the law.
Repeated violation: This violation is cited by OSHA when it is the same as a similar or previous violation.
Serious violation: OSHA cites a serious violation where there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result and that the employer knew, or should have known, of the hazard.
Other-than-serious violation: An other-than-serious violation is cited when the violation has a direct relationship to safety and health, but probably would not cause death or serious physical harm.
De Minimis: De minimis conditions are those where an employer has implemented a measure different from one specified in a standard, that has no direct or immediate relationship to safety or health. These conditions do not result in citations or penalties.
Failure to Abate : A failure to abate violation exists when a previously cited hazardous condition, practice or non-complying equipment has not been brought into compliance since the prior inspection (i.e., the violation remains continuously uncorrected) and is discovered at a later inspection.
The penalties that OSHA assesses are based on the type of violation. In settling a penalty, OSHA has a policy of reducing penalties for small employers and those acting in good faith. For serious violations, OSHA may also reduce the proposed penalty based on the gravity of the alleged violation. No good faith adjustment will be made for alleged willful violations. Below are the penalty amounts as of 2021:
Serious and other-than-serious violations:" OSHA may propose penalties of up to $13,653 for each serious, other than serious, and repeated violation.
Failure to abate. When the employer fails to abate a violation, a maximum of $13,653 may be proposed for per day the violation remains unabated beyond the abatement date. Generally there is a 30-day maximum limit.
Willful or repeated violations: OSHA may propose penalties of up to $136,532 for each willful or repeated violation.
OSHA cites employers, not employees: It's important to know that the OSHA Act does not provide for the issuance of citations or the proposal of penalties against employees. Employers are responsible for employee compliance with the standards.
Penalty Adjustments: OSHA may apply penalty adjustments that vary depending upon the employer's size (maximum number of employees), good faith, and the history of previous violations. Adjustments based on the number of employees may be applied as follows:
Over the years, OSHA has developed many helpful resources for employers. OSHA's website has a lot of safety and health information and links to resources that can help you.
For example, from the Home Page, you can:
You can contact OSHA by calling or visiting your local area or regional office for safety and health information or to discuss filing a complaint. Compliance Assistance Specialists in the area offices conduct many training sessions and have training materials and information that can be useful.
Open the following Safety and Health Resources handout to get valuable links to many more resources from NIOSH, universities, professional organizations, and unions.
You can also learn more about the OSHA website by opening the Navigating the OSHA Website handout.
OSHA's On-site Consultation Program offers free and confidential advice to small and medium-sized businesses in all states across the country, with priority given to high-hazard worksites. In FY 2015, responding to requests from small employers looking to create or improve their injury and illness prevention programs, OSHA's On-site Consultation Program conducted approximately 28,000 visits to small business worksites covering over 1.4 million workers across the nation.
On-site Consultation services are separate from enforcement and do not result in penalties or citations. Consultants from state agencies or universities work with employers to identify workplace hazards, provide advice on compliance with OSHA standards, and assist in establishing injury and illness prevention programs.
Because consultation is a voluntary activity, you must request it. The consultant will discuss your specific needs with you and set up a visit date based on the priority assigned to your request, your work schedule, and the time needed for the consultant to adequately prepare to serve you.
OSHA Alliance Program: Through the OSHA Alliance Program, OSHA works with groups committed to worker safety and health to prevent workplace fatalities, injuries, and illnesses. These groups include unions, consulates, trade or professional organizations, businesses, faith- and community-based organizations, and educational institutions. OSHA and the groups work together to develop compliance assistance tools and resources, share information with workers and employers, and educate workers and employers about their rights and responsibilities.
Alliance Program participants do not receive exemptions from OSHA inspections or any other enforcement benefits.
Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program. The On-site Consultation Program's Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP) recognizes small business employers who operate an exemplary injury and illness prevention program.
Acceptance of your worksite into SHARP from OSHA is an achievement of status that singles you out among your business peers as a model for worksite safety and health. Upon receiving SHARP recognition, OSHA exempts the worksite from OSHA programmed inspections during the period that the SHARP certification is valid.
OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program. The Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) recognize employers and workers in the private industry and federal agencies who have implemented effective safety and health management systems and maintain injury and illness rates below national Bureau of Labor Statistics averages for their respective industries.
To participate, employers must apply to OSHA and undergo a rigorous onsite evaluation by a team of safety and health professionals. Union support is required for applicants represented by a bargaining unit.
VPP participants are exempt from OSHA programmed inspections while they maintain their VPP status.
The first action to report a safety hazard should be to contact the employer's safety team leader, supervisor, manager, safety committee, etc. While anyone who knows about a workplace safety or health hazard may report unsafe conditions to OSHA, it’s a good practice to try to correct the hazard and prevent further exposure before involving OSHA.
OSHA evaluates each complaint to determine how it can be handled best--an off-site investigation or an on-site inspection. Workers who would like an on-site inspection must submit a written request. Workers who complain have the right to have their names withheld from their employers, and OSHA will not reveal this information. At least one of the following eight criteria must be met for OSHA to conduct an on-site inspection:
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