On December 29, 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act into law, calling it “probably one of the most important pieces of legislation” ever passed by Congress. In a nutshell, the Act says workplaces must be “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”
These hazards were far from negligible in the United States in the early '70s. At the time, an estimated 14,000 workers were killed on the job every year. The Act created an administrative agency under the U.S. Department of Labor, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA was tasked with setting and enforcing protective workplace safety and health standards, as well as providing information, training, outreach, and assistance to employers and workers. So, what does OSHA mean today to employers and employees?
Whom Does OSHA Regulate?
OSHA has jurisdiction over most employers. The agency covers private sector employers and employees in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and other U.S. jurisdictions. Some states have an OSHA-approved state program, which must be at least as stringent as the federal OSHA program, handling coverage for that state.
What Does OSHA Do?
OSHA sets standards or rules employers must follow to protect their workers from hazards. These standards include requirements to provide fall protection, prevent exposure to some infectious diseases, ensure the safety of workers who enter confined spaces, prevent exposure to harmful substances, and install guards on machines.
OSHA enforces these rules by conducting inspections. When it finds violations, it may issue citations and fines and require prompt remediation. The maximum penalty OSHA can assess is $7,000 for each serious violation and $70,000 for a repeated or willful violation. OSHA gave its first citation to a chemical company for exposing workers to mercury. Since then, the agency has noted 9 million violations and issued 36 health standards. It currently regulates 470 substances. While there were still 4,600 workplace fatalities in 2013, OSHA has proven effective; the daily fatal work injuries rate has dropped from 38 to 12 since the agency began and work-related injuries and illnesses have decreased by 40%.
What Does OSHA Mean for Employers?
Under the Act, employers have the responsibility to provide a safe workplace. Employers must follow relevant OSHA safety and health standards, find and correct safety and health hazards, inform employees about workplace hazards, provide personal protective equipment where required, post OSHA materials, notify OSHA of fatalities or serious work-related injuries, keep accurate records of work-related injuries and illness, and refrain from retaliating against workers for exercising their rights under the Act, such as calling the agency about dangers in the workplace.
How Does OSHA Help Employers?
Fundamentally, OSHA helps employers by providing them with guidance and information that will reduce the risk of injury in the workplace; this is valuable both financially and as a way to keep employees--an organization’s most valuable asset--healthy and safe. Employers who would like to be proactive, or who feel they may be in need of assistance with OSHA requirements, can request a free on-site consultation. OSHA provides this service for small businesses with no penalties or citations attached. OSHA also provides services through compliance assistance specialists, cooperative programs, and training and education materials. Considering workplace injuries and illnesses cost employers $170 billion a year (and that doesn’t even factor in the $60 billion a year in lost productivity due to occupational injuries), and that employees are more engaged where there are fewer incidents, the safety-engagement correlation has real bottom-line meaning.
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