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Occupational Safety & Health Act


The Occupational Safety and Health Act (“OSHA”) of 1970 created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to help employers and employees reduce injuries, illnesses, and deaths on the job in America. Since then, workplace fatalities have been cut by more than 60 percent and occupational injury and illness rates have declined by 40 percent. At the same time, U.S. employment has more than doubled and now includes over 115 million workers at 7.2 million worksites.

OSHA conducts around 40,000 inspections and issues about 85,000 citations for violations per year. The Consultation Program makes about 30,000 visits to employers. OSHA uses three basic strategies, authorized by the Occupational Safety and Health Act, to reduce injuries, illnesses, and deaths on the job: Enforcement; Outreach and compliance assistance; and cooperative and voluntary programs.

OSHA covers private sector employers and their employees 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. OSHA covers employers and employees either directly through Federal OSHA or through an OSHA-approved state program. OSHA does not cover: The self-employed; Members of immediate family of farm employers that do not employ outside workers; Worker conditions that are regulated under worker safety or health requirements of other federal agencies; Employees of state and local governments; some states have their own occupational safety and health plans that cover these workers.

Federal Worker Coverage

Section 19 of OSHA makes federal agency heads responsible for providing safe and healthful working conditions for their employees. OSHA conducts federal workplace inspections in response to employee reports of hazards. OSHA also requires federal agencies to comply with standards consistent with those for private sector employers. 

State and Local Government Worker Coverage

OSHA provisions cover the private sector only. However, some states have their own OSHA-approved occupational safety and health programs. These state programs cover state and local government employees.

State Programs

State plans are OSHA-approved job safety and health programs operated by individual states instead of Federal OSHA. OSHA encourages states to develop and operate their own job safety and health plans and precludes state enforcement of OSHA standards unless the state has an approved plan. OSHA approves and monitors all state plans. The state plans must be at least as effective as Federal OSHA requirements.

State plans covering the private sector also must cover state and local government employees. OSHA rules also permit states and territories to develop plans that cover only public sector (state and local government) employees. In these cases, private sector employment remains under Federal OSHA jurisdiction. Twenty-two states and territories operate complete plans, and four cover only the public sector. These states are listed below.

States with approved plans cover most private sector employees as well as state and local government workers in the state. Federal OSHA continues to cover federal employees and certain other employees specifically excluded from a state’s plan; for example, in some states those who work in maritime industries and on military bases.

The following states have OSHA-approved State Plans: Alaska, Hawaii, Arizona, Indiana, California, Iowa, Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, Puerto Rico, Michigan, South Carolina, Minnesota, Tennessee, Nevada, Utah, New Jersey, Vermont, New Mexico, Virgin Islands, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, Washington, Oregon, and Wyoming. The Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Virgin Islands plans cover public sector (state and local government) employment only.

Standards & Guidance Requirements

In general, OSHA standards require that employers:

  • Maintain conditions or adopt practices reasonably necessary and appropriate to protect workers on the job;

  • Be familiar with and comply with standards applicable to their establishments; and

  • Ensure that employees have and use personal protective equipment when required for safety and health.

Hazards Addressed

OSHA issues standards for a variety of workplace hazards, including:

  • Toxic substances;

  • Harmful physical agents;

  • Electrical hazards;

  • Fall hazards;

  • Trenching hazards;

  • Hazardous waste;

  • Infectious diseases;

  • Fire and explosion hazards;

  • Dangerous atmospheres;

  • Machine hazards; and

  • Confined spaces.

In addition, where there are no specific OSHA standards, employers must comply with OSHA’s “general duty clause.” The general duty clause, Section 5(a)(1), requires that each employer “furnish ... a place of employment which [is]free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees. ”

The Standards-Setting Process

Deciding to develop a standard OSHA can begin standards-setting procedures on its own initiative or in response to petitions from other parties, including:

  • The Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS);

  • The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH);

  • State and local governments;

  • Nationally recognized standards-producing organizations and employer or labor representatives; and

  • Any other interested parties.

OSHA publishes its intention to propose, amend, or revoke a standard in the Federal Register, either as:

  • A Request for Information or an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking or announcement of a meeting to solicit information to be used in drafting a proposal; or

  • A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which sets out the proposed new rule’s requirements and provides a specific time for the public to respond.

Interested parties may submit written information, comments, and evidence. In addition, OSHA may also schedule a public hearing to consider comments. After reviewing public comments, evidence, and testimony, OSHA publishes:

  • The full text of any standard amended or adopted and the date it becomes effective, along with an explanation of the standard and the reasons for implementing it; or

  • A determination that no standard or amendment is necessary.

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Input From Other Government Agencies

Other government agencies can recommend standards to OSHA. OSHA established the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the Department of HHS as the research agency for occupational safety and health. NIOSH conducts research on various safety and health problems, provides technical assistance to OSHA, and recommends standards for OSHA’s consideration.

Input From Small Business

The Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act of 1996 (SBREFA), gives small businesses help in understanding and complying with OSHA regulations and allows them to have a voice in developing new regulations. Under SBREFA, OSHA must:

  • Produce Small Entity Compliance Guides for some agency rules;

  • Be responsive to small business inquiries about complying with the agency’s regulations;

  • Have a penalty reduction policy for small businesses;

  • Involve small businesses in developing proposed rules expected to significantly affect a large number of small entities through Small Business Advocacy Review Panels; and

  • Give small businesses the opportunity to challenge in court agency rules or regulations that they believe will adversely affect them.

OSHA’s Reporting Requirements

All employers must report to OSHA within eight hours of learning about:

  • The death of any employee from a work-related incident; and

  • The in-patient hospitalization of three or more employees as a result of a work-related incident.

In addition, employers must report all fatal heart attacks that occur at work. Deaths from motor vehicle accidents on public streets (except those in a construction work zone) and in accidents on commercial airplanes, trains, subways or buses do not need to be reported. These reports may be made by telephone or in-person to the nearest OSHA area office. Employers may be subject to other reporting requirements in other OSHA standards as well.

OSHA’s Recordkeeping Requirements

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA) requires covered employers to prepare and maintain records of occupational injuries and illnesses. OSHA is responsible for administering the recordkeeping system established by the Act. OSHA and recordkeeping regulations provide specific recording and reporting requirements that comprise the framework for the national occupational safety and health recording system. Under this system, it is essential that data recorded by employers be uniform and accurate to assure the consistency and validity of the statistical data which is used by OSHA for many purposes, including inspection targeting, performance measurement, standards development, resource allocation, Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) and Safety and Health Recognition Program (SHARP) eligibility, and “low-hazard” industry exemptions. The data will also aid employers, employees, compliance officers, and consultants in analyzing the safety and health environment at the employer's establishment.

OSHA Enforcement Activities

Enforcement plays a large part in OSHA’s efforts to reduce workplace injuries, illnesses, and fatalities. Through OSHA’s Site-Specific Targeting and Enhanced Enforcement programs, the agency finds employers who fail to uphold their employee safety and health responsibilities. In addition, OSHA administers and supports a comprehensive field occupational safety and health guidance and compliance assistance effort within a variety of industry sectors including general industry, maritime, construction, and health. 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, Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Enhanced Enforcement Program (EEP)

  • OSHA’s Enhanced Enforcement Program targets employers who have a history of the most severe safety and health violations.

  • This causes OSHA to focus on employers who willfully and repeatedly expose their employees to the most serious hazards, refuse to correct violations, and violate their safety and health agreements.

OSHA Whistleblower Program

To help ensure that employees are free to participate in safety and health activities, Section 11(c)of OSHA prohibits any person from discharging or in any manner retaliating or discriminating against any employee because the employee has exercised rights under the Act. These rights include complaining to OSHA and seeking an OSHA inspection, participating in an OSHA inspection, and participating or testifying in any proceeding related to an OSHA inspection. “Discrimination” can include the following actions:

  • Firing or laying off

  • Blacklisting

  • Demoting

  • Denying overtime or promotion

  • Disciplining

  • Denial of benefits

  • Failure to hire or rehire

  • Intimidation

  • Reassignment affecting promotion prospects

  • Reducing pay or hours

To file a complaint under Section 11(c), an employee should contact the nearest OSHA office within 30 days of the discrimination.