What Is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)?

OSHA Is an Agency of the Department of Labor

Health and safety inspection at the workplace
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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created by Congress after the passing of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970. OSHA is a division of the U.S. Department of Labor and was created to ensure safe and healthy working conditions for the workforce by setting and enforcing standards, and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.

Here, you will learn what OSHA is, its history, how it works, how to file a complaint, and more.

What Is OSHA?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a federal agency that creates and enforces national workplace safety standards. OSHA's mission is to ensure that all men and women in the U.S. workforce have safe and healthful working conditions. 

Nearly half of U.S. states operate their own OSHA-approved workplace safety and health programs. State programs, however, must be deemed as effective as the federal one but can impose stricter penalties and higher fines. Most state programs apply to all workers employed by private or public employers (other than the federal government), but some cover state and local government employees only.  The federal OSHA plan applies in states that don't have a workplace safety plan. It covers all workers employed by private employers or the federal government. The federal plan, though, does not cover workers employed by state or local governments.

History of OSHA

Throughout much of the 20th century, the American workplace was often hazardous, with tens of thousands of workers suffering job-related injuries and deaths. By the late 1960s, workplace safety had improved somewhat but occupational injuries and illnesses were still a frequent occurrence. Congress then recognized that a federal workplace safety law was needed, and enacted the Occupational and Safety and Health (OSH) Act in 1970. The OSH Act created OSHA, which was established the following year.

Occupational injuries in U.S. workplaces have steadily declined since OSHA began operating. Between 1972 and 2018, the incidence rate of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses dropped from 10.9 cases per 100 full-time equivalent workers to 2.8 cases. Workplace fatalities have also dropped. In 1970, an estimated 14,000 workers were killed on the job, but by 2009, the workforce had doubled in size while fatalities fell to 4,340.

In addition to OSHA, the OSH Act established a research organization called the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH studies workplace hazards and injury prevention, and publishes data and guidance used by OSHA and other federal agencies. A host of content related to workplace safety is available on its website.

OSHA is an agency of the Department of Labor, while NIOSH is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

How OSHA Works

OSHA's primary function is to create and enforce regulations related to occupational safety. The agency has published hundreds of workplace health and safety standards. Many apply to all employers but some are industry-specific. OSHA standards are categorized into four broad industry groups:

  • Construction
  • Agriculture
  • Maritime
  • General Industry (consists of all industries not included in the other three groups)

Keep in mind, though, that OSHA standards don’t address every hazard, such as workplace violence. Hazards like this that are not mentioned in an OSHA standard may instead fall under the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act, which applies to all employers.  

Under the General Duty Clause, employers may be obligated to protect workers from hazards that are recognized in their industry as those that may cause serious occupational injuries—but are not cited in any OSHA standard. 

OSHA offers numerous resources on its website to help businesses comply with its standards. Some examples include the: 

  • Hazard Identification Training Tool: Employers can use this tool to locate hazards at their worksite. 
  • Compliance Assistance Quick Start Tool: Employers can use the Quick Start Tool to determine which OSHA requirements are relevant to their business. Employers that have questions about compliance can also contact their local Compliance Assistance Specialist.

Creating or Modifying Standards

OSHA standards aren't set in stone. The agency periodically creates new standards and revises or revokes existing ones. OSHA may initiate such changes because it thinks they’re necessary or because another agency or party has requested them. Once OSHA has finalized its plans to propose, amend, or revoke a standard, it publishes its intentions in the Federal Register and waits for comments from the public. When the comment period has closed, OSHA publishes the final law and a summary of its purpose in the Federal Register.

 

Workplace Inspections

OSHA enforces its standards via inspections of employers' workplaces. Generally, the agency will conduct an inspection for one of the following reasons, which are listed by numerical rank in priority.

  1. There is imminent danger to employees.
  2. A catastrophic injury has occurred that resulted in hospitalization or death.
  3. A worker has submitted a complaint.
  4. Another agency has recommended an inspection.
  5. The employer operates a business in a high-hazard occupation or has a high rate of injuries.
  6. OSHA needs to follow up on a previous inspection.

OSHA normally conducts workplace inspections without advance notice. The inspection may be conducted on the employer's premises or by telephone or fax. Once it has completed an inspection, OSHA issues a report outlining any violations and proposed penalties. Generally, only serious or repeated citations are subject to fines.

As of 2021, the maximum fine for each serious violation of an OSHA standard is $13,653, and the same max amount can apply each day for failure to abate a violation beyond the abatement date. Employers who commit willful or repeated violations may be subject to a maximum $136,532 fine per violation.

How to File Complaints With OSHA

Employees can file a complaint with OSHA and request an onsite inspection if they believe their workplace has a serious hazard or their employer is not following OSHA standards. Complaints can be filed online, in person, or by fax, mail, or email.

The OSH Act bars employers from retaliating against workers who have exercised their right to report unsafe working conditions. Employers cannot fire, demote, threaten, or take other adverse action against employees as punishment for reporting safety issues. Workers who believe they have been a victim of retaliation by their employer may file a whistleblower complaint with OSHA.

Criticisms of OSHA

OSHA has many critics. Some people complain that the agency does too much and that its overreach harms businesses. Others contend that OSHA does too little and that its failure to act harms workers. Here are some typical criticisms:

  • OSHA imposes needless rules and onerous regulations that are roadblocks to economic growth and job creation.
  • OSHA standards are outdated. Most are based on data from the 1950s and 1960s.
  • OSHA's standard-setting process is much too slow to safeguard workers. The average timeframe for a new standard is more than seven years.
  • The fines OSHA imposes on employers are too small to improve worker safety.
  • OSHA harmed workers by failing to pass an emergency temporary standard for COVID-19.

Key Takeaways

  • OSHA is a federal agency that creates and enforces national workplace safety standards. 
  • NIOSH is an occupational safety research agency that advises OSHA.
  • About half the states operate their own occupational safety program. The remaining half are governed by the federal program.
  • Some OSHA standards are industry-specific but many apply to all businesses.
  • Workplace hazards that aren't addressed by a specific OSHA standard may be covered by the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act.
  • OSHA enforces its standards via worksite inspections and may impose fines for violations.