Definition

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, more commonly known by its acronym OSHA, is responsible for protecting worker health and safety in the United States. Congress created OSHA in 1971 following its passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 to ensure safe and healthy working conditions for workers by enforcing workplace laws and standards and also by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.  Congress enacted the OSH Act in response to annual workplace accidents that resulted in 14,000 worker deaths and 2.5 million disabled workers annually. Since its inception, OSHA has cut the work-fatality rate by more than half, and it has significantly reduced the overall injury and illness rates in industries where OSHA has concentrated its attention, such as textiles and excavation. The administrator for OSHA is the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health; the position answers to the Secretary of Labor, a member of the Cabinet of the United States.

OSHA coverage extends to most, but not all, private sector employers and their workers. OSHA rules cover numerous industry workplaces from construction to maritime to agriculture. The agency also covers some public sector employers and their workers, usually through state OSHA agencies that regulate public sector employers. However, OSHA does not cover self-employed workers or immediate members of farm families who do not employ nonfamily workers. OSHA extends throughout all 50 states as well as U.S. territories and jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam and Northern Mariana Islands. States can have their own federally approved occupational safety and health regulatory programs, which are called state-plans. The State-Plan States must have regulations that are as stringent as federal OSHA regulations, but they also can implement stricter regulations if they choose.

OSHA determines which standards and requirements apply to which workplace environments and then enforces employer adherence to those standards and requirements. OSHA sets these standards and requirements based on workplace research as well as input from technical experts, employers, unions and other stakeholders. To help employers adhere to its standards and requirements, OSHA offers training and tools to educate employers and employees. OSHA is required to explain the procedures, equipment and training that employers and workers must use to reduce hazards and ensure safety measures specific to the employers’ workplace and workers’ jobs.

In addition to education and training, OSHA is tasked with enforcement. OSHA officials can issue fines ranging into the tens of thousands of dollars for violations, and they can refer violators for criminal prosecution if they deem such action warranted. OSHA is also tasked with identifying possible causes for job-related injuries, deaths and illnesses. In 2015, OSHA fined Ashley Furniture three times for a total of $2,280,200 after investigations revealed more than 1,000 recordable work-related injuries in the previous three-and-a-half years and failure to protect employees from moving machine parts. OSHA's largest action to date has been against BP Products of North America Inc., following a 2005 explosion and fire at the BP Texas City Refinery that killed 15 workers and injured 170. The proposed penalties totaled $87.4 million.

To comply with OSHA requirements, employers must take a number of specific actions; those include inspecting the workplace for potential hazards, eliminating or minimizing hazards, keeping records of workplace injuries and illness, training employees to recognize safety and health hazards, and educating employees on precautions to prevent accidents. OSHA also requires employees to follow rules, such as complying with all applicable OSHA standards, following OSHA safety regulations, wearing required protective equipment, reporting hazardous conditions, and reporting job-related injuries and illnesses. OSHA also protects employees by guaranteeing a host of rights. Those include the right to have copies of OSHA regulations and request information about workplace hazards, precautions, and procedures; to request OSHA inspections if they believe hazardous conditions or violations exist in their workplace; and to refuse being exposed to the danger of death or serious physical harm. Additionally, OSHA and federal laws protect workers who complain or report possible violations to their employers, OSHA or other agencies against retaliation. Employers are prohibited from taking unfavorable personnel action against a whistleblower, and employees who feel their legal rights have been infringed upon can file a complaint to OSHA alleging employer retaliation.

OSHA has various programs to further its mission. Its Alliance Program, for example, allows employers, labor unions, trade or professional groups, government agencies and educational institutions to collaborate with OSHA to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses. Meanwhile, its Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP) provides incentives and support to employers for the development and implementation of workplace safety and health programs.

This video provides an introduction to OSHA.

This was last updated in April 2012

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