What Does OSHA Do and Why is OSHA Training Important?

Ask for the simplest definition of OSHA, and you'll learn that it's the U.S. government agency in charge of regulating workplace safety.

That's a dry and simple summary for the watchdog that protects critical rights and protections. Many of us take it for granted now, but before OSHA, everyday Americans had little recourse for unsafe working conditions.

What Does OSHA Stand For?

OSHA is short for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The agency was established in the early 1970s under the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) as a result of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act).

The OSH Act wasn't the first workplace safety law in the land, but it was the most comprehensive. Before its passage in 1970, safety laws addressed specific types of businesses, like railroads and mines. The OSH Act, on the other hand, covers most workers in the U.S., with a few exceptions.

That includes workers in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, all U.S. territories, and the outer continental shelf lands.

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OSHA 10 Hour General Industry

OSHA 10 Outreach general industry covers 29 CFR 1910 regulations. DOL card included.

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OSHA 30 Hour General Industry

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OSHA 10 Hour & 30 Hour Outreach Training for Construction

Keep everyone on your construction site safe with OSHA 10 and 30 training.

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OSHA 10 Hour & 30 Hour Outreach Training for General Industry

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What Does OSHA Do?

OSHA's mission is to "ensure safe and healthful working conditions" within its jurisdiction. That's a broad and complicated goal, which it tackles from many different directions.

OSHA Sets Workplace Safety Standards

The OSH Act itself doesn't contain all of the detailed rules we use to improve workplace safety. Instead, it sets the framework for OSHA's power to set and enforce specific "standards" (regulations).

These standards can be found in Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Parts 1902-1990. You'll often see specific standards cited in shorthand, like 29 CFR 1926 (the standards specific to construction work), or § 1910.141 (the standards for sanitary conditions in the workplace).

Some OSHA standards are very detailed, with exact specifications that change based on industry. In other cases, the standards remain flexible where exact specifications don't make sense. Employers are expected to follow the spirit of those standards, then OSHA (and/or the courts) decide on the compliance of questionable policies on a case by case basis, which establishes precedent.

There is also a General Duty Clause in the OSH Act, which holds employers responsible for addressing all "serious recognized hazards." This allows OSHA to hold employers accountable for any safety violations that aren't spelled out in the standards, either because they're new or very rare.

OSHA Approves and Monitors State Plans

Occupational safety and health regulations aren't the same everywhere.

The OSH Act allows states and territories to make their own version of workplace safety regulations. These "state plans" are only approved if OSHA decides the safety measures are "at least as effective" as federal standards.

Once a state plan is approved, enforcement responsibilities (and funding) are handed over to a state equivalent of OSHA. Approved state plans exist in 26 states and 2 territories.

Federal OSHA maintains high-level oversight. Any state-level changes to standards must be approved before they take effect, and when federal standards change, states have to keep up with the federal minimum.

OSHA Tracks Workplace Injuries and Illnesses

You'll often see claims that in 1970, just before the OSH Act took effect, there were 14,000 fatalities due to job-related accidents.

The truth is that's a guess. We don't know the real number, because no one was keeping track. Plus, that estimate only addresses fatal accidents – it doesn't account for non-fatal injuries and illnesses or deaths from long-term exposure to workplace hazards (like cancer-causing chemicals).

Thanks to OSHA's reporting and recording requirements, we have much more detailed and complete data (all the better to track progress with, my dear).

All employers must promptly report any work-related injuries or illnesses that result in death, in-patient hospitalization, amputation, or loss of an eye.

Certain employers are required to record additional work-related injuries and illnesses under certain conditions and make the records available in the event of an audit or inspection.

OSHA Takes Complaints & Protects Whistleblowers

OSHA allows anyone to file an anonymous safety and health complaint against an employer. The agency's response depends on the situation. Complaints involving imminent danger trigger a rapid response investigation (RRI), which includes an immediate on-site inspection.

Other complaints trigger a phone/fax investigation. The employer has to answer questions about the hazard and the measures they're taking to reduce risk. If they don't respond or fail to provide an adequate answer, it may turn into an on-site inspection.

OSHA also protects workplace safety whistleblowers from retaliation. Whistleblower complaints aren't anonymous, since the whistleblower's identity is important to the investigation.

OSHA Inspects Workplaces

Complaints are only one reason OSHA conducts an on-site inspection. An inspection is also triggered by:

  • Imminent danger situations
  • Employer-reported injuries or illnesses (as described above)
  • Referrals from other government agencies, individuals, organizations, or media

There are also scheduled inspections for workplaces that belong to high-risk industries and of businesses that have a poor history with health and safety.

Finally, there are follow-up inspections to ensure that hazards found on previous visits get corrected.

OSHA Enforces Safety Standards

If an inspection or investigation finds a violation of OSHA standards, the compliance officer issues a citation with a penalty and a deadline for correcting the issue. Imminent danger violations must be corrected immediately, or OSHA will shut the work site down.

If the employer fails to correct the issue to OSHA's satisfaction by the deadline, the employer is issued a failure-to-abate violation, with a fine for every day that the original violation continues.

OSHA is often willing to reduce penalties for small employers, less-serious violations, and/or employers who act in good faith. On the flip side, they use categories like willful and repeat violations to increase penalties on bad actors. Willful violations can become a criminal offense if they result in someone's death.

In addition to penalties and abatements (corrections), OSHA requires all citations to be posted at or near the violation for a minimum amount of time. This alerts workers to the problem and helps them learn about the safety violation that they were exposed to.

OSHA Mandates Safety Training

Obviously, citations can't be the only method for educating workers about hazards. That's why OSHA requires employers to provide organized safety training to employees.

OSHA also operates the OSHA Training Institute (OTI) to "train the trainers." Instructors that complete programs at the OTI are then officially "OSHA authorized" or "OSHA accepted" for Outreach training.

Why Is OSHA Training Important?

Workplace safety is only possible when everyone knows what a hazard looks like and how to prevent, mitigate, or correct it. Some of this knowledge can be learned during hands-on training, but having certain concepts explained via classroom, online coursework, or blended training is also helpful.

Many standards explicitly require training on that topic. Employers have to keep records of training history for every worker to remain compliant. It's not enough to provide training, though – OSHA expects it to be effective. They'll quiz workers on-site during an inspection to decide how well they understand the rules and hazards that apply to their duties.

Some jurisdictions or employers require another type of OSHA-authorized training known as OSHA Outreach or a "DOL" card. OSHA sets guidelines for Outreach curriculum that provide both consistency and flexibility for different industries. That's useful for states, municipalities, and organizations that want to meet a minimum bar for safety training.

OSHA itself doesn't require Outreach training, but the topics included in the curriculum often give employers a jump-start on meeting OSHA's standard-specific training requirements.

Finally, OSHA training saves money. A workforce with adequate health and safety training is more productive, with:

  • fewer OSHA penalties
  • fewer accident investigations
  • fewer lost workdays
  • fewer Worker's Compensation claims
  • lower medical expenses
  • lower turnover (and therefore fewer hiring, onboarding, and training costs)

This has a ripple effect on the entire economy.

Where Can You Find OSHA-Authorized Training?

OSHA keeps a running list of training providers in good standing (and those whose authorization has expired or been revoked). You always want to ensure the credentials of your training provider are valid.

We've been an OSHA-authorized provider for over 20 years, providing quality online coursework. We offer OSHA 10 and OSHA 30 programs for both Construction and General Industry, as well as HAZWOPER, HAZCOM, and a large catalog of standard-specific courses a la carte.

If you're an employer looking to train your entire workforce, we have business solutions available that include bulk rates, dedicated account management, optional LMS, and comprehensive training solutions with additional courses on HR, business skills, industrial skills, and more.

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