Within the Department of Labor, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for establishing and enforcing the health and safety regulations initially set forth in the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970.
OSHA was established along with the OSH Act. In addition to enforcing the Act, OSHA develops and promulgates standards, develops and issues regulations, conducts inspections to insure compliance, and issues citations and proposes penalties. In the case of a disagreement over the results of safety and health inspections performed by OSHA, employers have the right of appeal to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, which works to ensure the timely and fair resolution of these cases.
Virtually every employer in the country is covered by OSHA. Employees not covered include those regulated by another Federal agency such as the Federal Aviation Administration, the Coast Guard, and miners covered by the Mine Safety and Health Act, 1977; self-employed individuals; and immediate family members of farm employers that do not employ outside employees.
Employers have a great responsibility to provide working conditions that are safe and free of identified hazards. They are responsible for educating employees on workplace safety; providing proper safety equipment to the worker at no charge, if necessary; and communicate to employees the OSHA standards for their worksite. Employers must also report to OSHA any fatalities or hospitalizations resulting from an incident at the workplace. Any employer found violating the regulations and standards set forth by OSHA is subject to citations or fines.
In turn, employees must also comply with safety standards, notify the employer and/or OSHA of safety concerns or health hazards, attend training sessions, and follow other established compliance measures. It is essential that employees understand how to properly handle tools or chemicals, and navigate worksites, such as those found in construction or agriculture that have serious hazards.
Worksites are subject to inspection by compliance officers without notice at any time. Typically, inspections are conducted due to complaints, suspicious activity, or notice of non-compliance. Employers found negligent in an area may be given a citation and notice to remedy the situation within a specified time period. Failure to do so may result in fines or other legal action.
OSHA has evolved significantly since it began in 1970. Standards have been set for exposure levels to chemicals such as benzene, lead, and vinyl chloride, as well as asbestos, noise, and carcinogens. Toxic chemicals continue to be added as evidence is found linking an employee's exposure to them at work with health problems.
Major changes to OSHA have occurred in the past 20 years. Most noticeably, the agency has worked to streamline paperwork, update record-keeping with new technology, and revise standards regulations to be more concise and easier to understand. In addition, OSHA has developed several new programs and initiatives to increase compliance by businesses and industries such as Site-Specific Targeting (SST). Employers with the highest incidence rates and high hazard risks are placed on this list for closer monitoring and inspection.
The standards, regulations, and equipment required by OSHA for compliance often seems common-sense. Through enforcement, changes to worksites have included use of respirators, safety glasses, and other protective equipment; improved ergonomic workspaces; and greater protection against bloodborne pathogens through use of gloves, sharps containers, etc. just to name a few.
Since its formation in 1970, OSHA has made significant improvements to the wellness and safety of workers in the United States. The number of workers killed on the job each day decreased more than 65%, from an average of 38 fatalities per day in 1970 to 13 in 2010. Serious injury and illness related to work also decreased—down 67% from 1970.
OSHA is focusing on reducing these numbers further through enhanced training on the “Fatal Four” commonly occurring at construction sites: falls, electrocution, being struck by an object, and getting caught in or between objects. Three out of five deaths at construction sites are due to one of these four incident types.
Over the past 40 years, OSHA has been very successful in improving the health and safety of worksites for employees covered under the OSH Act. Many of the guidelines set forth in the Field Operations Manual are adopted by businesses and industries that fall outside of the Act as well. OSHA played a prominent role in overseeing the safety of workers involved in large clean-up and reconstruction efforts including the World Trade Centers (2001), Hurricane Katrina (2005), and the Minnesota bridge collapse (2007).
Several court cases challenged OSHA regulations over the years. One of these was Donovan v. A.A. Beiro, which challenged the cotton dust standard for employee exposure. It was upheld despite concerns by OSHA. Regulatory actions and citations are frequently contested by the businesses and industries they impact. However, in most cases, the requirements and regulations established by OSHA are either upheld or moderately changed based on evidence provided. The most significant changes are usually the result of new government directives.
Despite these challenges, both employers and employees have overwhelmingly benefited from improved health and safety conditions at their worksites. In 2002, businesses, trade and professional organizations, unions, educational institutions, and OSHA teamed up to form the Alliance Program. This program allows the groups to contribute information and ideas that will further OSHA's objective to reduce illness, injury, and fatality at work.
See also Occupational Safety and Health Administration .
Kaletsky, Rick. OSHA Inspections: Preparation and Response, 2nd ed. Itasca, IL: National Safety Council, 2012.
Moran, Mark. The OSHA Answer Book, 10th ed. Fleming Island, FL: Moran Assoociates, 2011.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Reflections on OSHA's History. U.S. Department of Labor. January 2009. http://www.osha.gov/history/OSHA_HISTORY_3360s.pdf (accessed October 2, 2012).
“What is OSHA?” All About OSHA http://www.allaboutosha.com (accessed October 2, 2012).
U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration–Room N3641, 200 Constitution Ave., Washington, DC, 20210, (800) 321-OSHA (6742), http://www.osha.gov .