The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a federal agency that establishes on-the-job safety protections for workers.
They get a bad rap sometimes, but OSHA regulations are crucial to the well-being of our workforce. That makes them important to our economy, as well. Regular illnesses and injuries burden the health care system. And when thousands of workers and their families lose wages, they can’t afford anything but survival spending. That slows the economy down. And employer save on lost productivity, hiring and training costs, and Worker’s Compensation claims.
But to understand OSHA’s true value, you have to understand how much safer it’s made us in the workplace.
OSHA’s History, Mission and Accomplishments
“In the last 25 years, more than 400,000 Americans were killed by work-related accidents and disease, and close to 50 million more suffered disabling injuries on the job. Not only has this resulted in incalculable pain and suffering for workers and their families, but such injuries have cost billions of dollars in lost wages and production.”
– Rep Steiger in 1970, speaking in support of creating OSHA
In 1970, Nixon signed the bipartisan Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) into law. The next year, OSHA was born under the Department of Labor (DOL) to iron out regulations and enforcement.
Over the next few years, the agency adopted specific safety standards, began approving State Plans, and established the OSHA Training Institute. The agency continued to craft new protections as more hazards came to light.
Through this work, OSHA drastically reduced the number of workplace deaths. In 1970, before OSHA took effect, there were an estimated 14,000 fatalities due to job-related accidents. In 2017, there were about 5,000. That’s impressive enough, but the workforce almost doubled in that time, so that means OSHA achieved somewhere around an 80% reduction.
Non-fatal injuries and illnesses have also dropped. In 1972, after reporting requirements were established, there were 10.9 incidents per 100 workers. By 2017, that number was just 2.8.
OSHA’s mission is to assure “safe and healthful working conditions” for all workers. It’s been making steady progress for almost 50 years.
Who Does OSHA Cover (and Not Cover)?
The sound bite is that OSHA regulations apply to all employees and employers under U.S. federal government authority. But what does that actually mean?
OSHA applies to:
- All 50 states
- The District of Columbia
- All U.S. Territories (Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and minor outlying islands like Wake Island and Johnston Atoll)
- The Outer Continental Shelf Lands
Within those jurisdictions, OSHA covers:
- Most private sector employers and their workers
- All federal agencies and their employees
- In 26 states and two territories, OSHA-approved State Plans (which are “at least as effective” as OSHA) cover public sector employees. That includes anyone working for state, territorial, and local governments, including police officers and firefighters.
OSHA has specific protections against exposure to hazards like:
- Harmful chemicals
- Dangerous machines
- Dangers of working in confined spaces
- Some infectious diseases
But even when no specific rules apply, employers are subject to the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act. It makes them responsible for protecting their workers from all “serious recognized hazards,” and makes it possible for OSHA to immediately recognize and respond to previously unknown dangers.
While OSHA monitors high-risk industries more closely, their regulations apply to all types of jobs. You probably don’t think about OSHA much if you work in an office. But it guarantees you sanitary working conditions, emergency evacuation plans, and fire extinguishing systems (among other things).
What’s NOT Covered?
OSHA does NOT apply to:
- Public sector employees in the jurisdictions that don’t have OSHA-approved State Plans. That includes 24 states, D.C., and all other U.S. territories.
- Self-employed individuals (including, at the moment, rideshare drivers and other “gig” jobs where you’re an “independent contractor”)
- Immediate family members of farm employers
- Workplace hazards regulated by another federal agency (like the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the Department of Energy, or the Coast Guard)
What Rights Do Employees Have Under OSHA?
As a worker under OSHA, you have the right to:
- Work under conditions that don’t pose a serious threat to your health and safety
- Receive information and training about hazards in your workplace, methods to prevent harm, and OSHA standards, in a language and vocabulary you can understand
- Notify your employer about workplace hazards without fear of retaliation or discrimination
- File a safety and health complaint with OSHA confidentially
- Take part in an OSHA inspection, directly or through a representative
- Speak in private with the OSHA inspector
- See any OSHA citation issued to your employer, posted in plain sight
- Have those violations corrected by the date on the citation
- Receive copies of your medical records for work-related incidents or conditions
- Receive copies of test results that measure hazards in your workplace
- File a complaint with OSHA if your employer retaliates against you as an OSHA whistleblower (including firing you, laying you off, failing to hire or rehire, blacklisting, demoting, denying overtime or promotion, reassigning to a position that affects prospects for promotion, reducing pay or hours, denying benefits, imposing discipline, intimidating you, or making threats)
And under certain conditions, you also have the right to refuse hazardous work. But all the following must be met in good faith:
- The conditions need to present an obvious risk of death or serious physical harm. In other words, any reasonable person would conclude that there’s real danger.
- The danger needs to be so immediate that waiting for an OSHA inspection isn’t practical. In other words, any reasonable person would conclude you shouldn’t continue working while waiting for OSHA to confirm the threat.
- Someone needs to bring the threat to the employer’s attention and give them the chance to eliminate it.
- THEN, if your employer can’t (or won’t) correct the condition AND you have no reasonable alternative to protect yourself….
In that case, your employer can’t legally retaliate against you for refusing that work. This does NOT allow you to walk off the job site or refuse to perform other work. It only lets you refuse to put yourself in harm’s way.
What Responsibilities Do Employers Have Under OSHA?
OSHA requires employers to provide a workplace free of serious hazards to their workers’ health and safety.
When they discover a hazard, first they have to eliminate or reduce it by any feasible means. That includes measures like switching to a safer chemical, installing ventilation systems, or creating processes to trap dangerous fumes.
If these measures can’t produce safe enough conditions, then employers have to provide personal protective equipment like masks, gloves, or earplugs.
Additionally, employers have a responsibility to:
- Provide safety training in a language and vocabulary workers can understand
- Display the official OSHA Job Safety and Health poster describing workplace safety rights and responsibilities in a prominent place
- Inform employees about chemical hazards
- Keep accurate records of work-related injuries and illnesses
- Notify OSHA within 8 hours of a workplace fatality and 24 hours of any hospitalization, amputation, or loss of an eye
- Perform tests like air sampling when required by OSHA standards
- Perform hearing exams and other medical tests required by OSHA standards
- Provide personal protective equipment at no cost (in most cases) to workers
- Post citations and any injury/illness data where workers can see them
- Not retaliate or discriminate against workers for using their OSHA-given rights
What is OSHA Training?
OSHA’s worker training requirement created a need for a training curriculum among employers that OSHA couldn’t meet by itself. So in 1992, the non-profit OTI Education Center Program was born. Since there are only 27 in the country, OTI Ed Centers focus their efforts on “training trainers” and authorizing private institutions to provide OSHA courses.
There’s no such thing as “OSHA certification.” The DOL does issue official OSHA 10-Hour or 30-Hour cards, but these are required by certain states and types of employers, not OSHA itself.
In fact, the rules for OSHA’s worker training compliance are vague and subjective. Employers need to train their workers in what they need to know to do their job safely, no more and no less. They do provide a list of training requirements by task, so you don’t have to comb directly through the regulations. But it’s hardly a curriculum. That makes DIY training difficult-to-impossible for employers.
That’s where OSHA-authorized training providers come in. We keep up with regulatory details and changes, then design the curriculum for you.
And with online courses, your workers have more flexibility to meet their requirements – no need to herd everyone into a classroom at the same time. It’s more affordable, too!
If you’re a business, we can also provide the tools to enroll, track, and document the training of your entire workforce. That makes it easy to prove all your workers have received the right amount of training.