Differences Between OSHA and Cal OSHA: What is Cal OSHA?

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act allows for "state plans," in which jurisdictions can create and maintain their own occupational safety and health regulations that are officially recognized by the federal system. In some cases, the state plan supplements the federal program, while in other cases it allows them to take over some federal responsibilities like enforcement.

California's program is often referred to as Cal OSHA.

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What is Cal OSHA?

Cal OSHA (sometimes written as Cal/OSHA) is California's state-level agency for workers' safety and health. They're in charge of crafting and enforcing the regulations under Title 8 of the California Code of Regulations (CCR).

Most of the employers and workers in the state are under the authority of Cal OSHA instead of the federal agency, and their rules are significantly different.

What Does Cal/OSHA Stand For?

Cal OSHA stands for the California Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA).

It's more of a nickname than an official moniker. The agency's real name is the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) under the California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR).

Why Cal/OSHA? Well, California's regulatory program is unique in several ways, so it gets referenced nationwide in occupational safety and health circles – that makes a specific and catchy name helpful. Many other state-level agencies are also named DOSH, which can cause confusion. Plus, "OSHA" has a lot more name recognition, due to the federal agency.

And let's face it, "California DOSH" or "Cal DOSH" doesn't roll off the tongue in quite the same way.

Cal OSHA vs OSHA

There are a variety of differences between the federal program (called OSHA) and the state program known as Cal OSHA, but the most important things to understand are how the rules are different in California, who's in charge of what, and who you contact with questions or concerns.

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How California OSHA Laws Are Different

The OSH Act requires state OSH standards to be "at least as effective" as their federal counterparts. Many state plans adopt federal standards as-is, but Cal/OSHA's regulations tend to be both broader and stricter than the federal government's standards.

California's OSHA laws differ more significantly from federal OSHA than any other state. As a result, employers that answer to Cal OSHA must pay special attention to state-level standards.

They differ in two main ways: some California standards are more protective than the federal requirements, and Cal OSHA has introduced unique standards that have no federal counterpart.

A few examples of Cal/OSHA standards with more protective requirements include the:

  • Bloodborne Pathogen (BBP) standard. Cal/OSHA requires employers to provide more extensive information about sharps in both selection and evaluation procedures and injury reports.
  • Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs). The federal PELs for air contaminants haven't changed since 1970, while Cal OSHA's have been updated more than 20 times to be more protective.
  • Process Safety Management enforcement. Cal OSHA makes more regular and extensive visits to refineries and chemical plants than the federal program.
  • Mining and Tunneling requirements. The federal program (primarily handled by the MSHA) doesn't cover finishing operations, while Cal/OSHA does. Cal/OSHA also requires extra safety measures for tunnel construction projects.

California's unique OSH standards include:

  • The Injury and Illness Prevention Program (IIPP) is a standard that requires employers to come up with a plan for proactively preventing health and safety problems for their workforce.
  • The Heat Illness Prevention Program requires safety measures to prevent and address heat stroke, exhaustion, cramps, or rashes in outdoor workers. They're currently developing a standard for indoor workers, like those in warehouses without AC.
  • The Repetitive Motion Injury (RMI) Prevent Program is the only OSH standard in the country to mandate an ergonomics program for workplaces with a history of RMIs.
  • The Aerosol Transmissible Disease (ATD) standard only applies to healthcare settings, but it got a lot of national attention at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as a regulatory model.
  • Some Cal/OSHA standards are very niche, including standards for high-rise window cleaning, ski lifts, and portable amusement or bungee jumping rides.

Federal OSHA has no specific standards to address these problems, but they can and do cite some of these safety violations by using the General Duty Clause.

The advantage of Cal/OSHA's detailed requirements is that they set expectations for employers, give workers more leverage to file complaints, and make enforcement more consistent.

Jurisdictions of Cal OSHA vs OSHA

Who has to follow Cal/OSHA's stricter laws?

Cal OSHA has jurisdiction for nearly all Californians, including:

A few still answer solely to OSHA or another federal agency. That includes:

  • All employees of the federal government
  • Aircraft cabin crewmembers on board an aircraft in operation
  • Maritime workers on U.S. navigable waters (except onshore and bridge construction, which belong to Cal/OSHA)
  • Private-sector workers on military installations, national parks, national monuments, national memorials, and national recreation areas
  • Private-sector and tribal workers on Native American reservations and land trusts
  • Private-sector contract workers and facilities engaged by the U.S. Postal Service

Federal and California OSHA Offices

Both Cal OSHA and federal OSHA have offices within the state.

There are 18 California OSHA offices throughout the state. They're divided up geographically, and you can get the latest contact information from this comprehensive list of Cal OSHA district offices.

However, a few industries have specialized California OSHA offices to contact. Refineries and chemical plants must contact the Process Safety Management (PSM) Unit, and work environments related to mining and tunneling are also handled separately. The Labor Enforcement Task Force (LETF) Unit deals with workplace hazards in the underground economy.

Additionally, any employer might have to deal with the High Hazard Unit if Cal/OSHA determines they have a high incidence of preventable injuries and illnesses or workers' compensation losses.

Those under federal jurisdiction can reach out to the closest OSHA area office. There are two – one in Oakland, and one in San Diego. There's a color-coded map that tells you which federal "area" applies to you.

Cal OSHA Training Requirements

Federal OSHA and Cal OSHA both require employers to train their workers on any hazards they're likely to encounter. It's an employer's legal responsibility to teach employees how to recognize, prevent, and mitigate all foreseeable OSH threats.

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Since Cal OSHA's standards differ significantly from federal regulations, employers under their jurisdiction need to make sure their training is Cal OSHA-specific and covers all relevant state standards.

Cal/OSHA helps you accomplish this by publishing a list of Cal OSHA standards that explicitly require training, as well as guidance on what to document, when to train, and more. You should cross-reference this with the federal list of OSH training requirements to ensure you don't miss anything.

But remember, even if a safety hazard is omitted from both lists, you may have a responsibility to provide relevant training anyway.

How to Get Started with Cal/OSHA Training

Feeling overwhelmed? Meeting your Cal/OSHA training obligations can be stressful without help.

The federal OSHA program invented Outreach Training courses that give workers a primer on the most common required training topics. These are taught by OSHA-authorized training providers, either online or in a classroom.

While OSHA 10 and 30 courses don't fulfill all your training obligations, they do give you a great head-start without a lot of hassle.

The only catch is that you need to find Cal/OSHA-specific versions of these programs to ensure your workers are learning the rules that apply to them.

Get Cal OSHA 10 Training Online

Our Cal/OSHA 10 course provides your workforce with the California-compliant training they need. It's online and mobile-friendly for everyone's convenience, and you may qualify for a bulk discount. Contact us now!

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