What Is the Importance of OSHA in the Workplace?

By Christine Lebednik

Because some employers, especially smaller employers with shoestring budgets, shirk self-regulation in terms of workplace safety practices, government oversight of workplace safety matters is necessary; and such oversight often requires employers to act in their own self-interest. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides this oversight for certain categories of workplace.

Workplace Safety

Workplace safety provides tangible benefits both to employee and employer. In addition to safety concerns, a workplace environment that is safe and healthful enhances creativity and innovation, leading to increased employee productivity, as described at the OSHA website. Additionally, good workplace health and safety environments have a beneficial effect on an employer's bottom line: In 2006 workers' compensation alone cost employers $87.6 billion and represented only a fraction of medical costs resulting from poor workplace safety or health practices, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition to enforcement authority over poor practices, OSHA can help employers develop good workplace safety programs.

OSHA

The OSHA came into existence in 1970 as a result of legislation known as the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, which created OSHA as an agency within the Department of Labor. The act provided employees with many new rights and also gave employees new responsibilities in terms of workplace safety. Simultaneously, the Occupational Safety and Health Act encouraged employer-employee joint efforts in promoting healthful and safe workplaces. In addition to enforcement authority over certain classes of employers who engage in violations of workplace safety and health principles, OSHA can participate in efforts to enhance workplace safety and health through consultation services the agency offers to employers.

Workplace Criteria

All workplaces, regardless of size, have a responsibility under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 to take actions toward ensuring a safe, healthful workplace environment and are liable to enforcement action for violations of these rights. However, not all workplaces fall under the OSHA's authority. A different agency also operating under the 1970 Occupational and Safety Act has authority over federal workplaces and in some instances state-run agencies have authority over workplaces within the individual state.

Federal Workplace

The National Institute for Occupational Safety, also known as NIOSH, has authority for workplace safety and health matters at federal workplace locations. In the federal workplace environment, NIOSH has an enforcement authority that corresponds to the authority OSHA exercises over workplaces operated by private sector employers.

State-run Programs

In some instances, state-run programs supersede OSHA authority, and the Occupational and Safety and Health Act of 1970 encourages the development and operation by individual states of workplace safety and health programs. However, to qualify for this exemption to OSHA authority, a state-run program must establish standards and enforcement criteria that match or exceed the effectiveness of the federal OSHA program. As of April 2010, 26 states and U.S. territories have such programs in place with 23 of those 26 covering state and local government workplaces as well as workplaces operated by private sector employers.

About the Author

A writer/editor since 1984, Christine Lebednik has spent much of her career in business and technical writing, and editing. Her consumer print and online articles include product descriptions for TDMonthly Online, book reviews for Catholic News Service, consumer reports for Consumer Search and works for various other publications. Lebednik received her Bachelor of Arts in English from Salem State College.