The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, better known as OSHA, was created under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The goal of that law was to set standards for maintaining safety at job sites. The government intends these standards to increase the health and safety of employees and enforces the law partly through inspections at job sites. OSHA grants a record-keeping exemption to businesses with 10 or fewer employees, but otherwise, large and small businesses are expected to meet OSHA regulations, with only a few exceptions.
OSHA itself falls under the United States Department of Labor and functions as part of the enforcement arm of the law. The Occupational Safety and Health Act covers most private-sector employers and their workers in all 50 states and all territories of the United States. In some cases, states developed their own job safety programs that OSHA approved and helps fund. However, there are a few areas where OSHA is not involved because the law is not applicable.
Exceptions to OSHA Regulations
OSHA does not cover state and local government workers, but they may have protections under state-approved programs. OSHA does apply to all federal government workers. Also not covered under the law are self-employed individuals and immediate family members of farm employers.
OSHA does not apply when a different federal agency, such as the Department of Energy, regulates a workplace. If a business maintains 10 or fewer employees throughout a calendar year, it does not need to keep OSHA injury and illness records, although the business must file OSHA reports if fatalities occur or more than three employees are hospitalized within a calendar year.
OSHA Standards and Regulations
Although OSHA maintains specific standards for organizations that fall into one of the four major categories of businesses it oversees, it also lists eight primary responsibilities and standards that apply to all businesses. These responsibilities include:
- Instituting fall protection.
- Preventing trenching cave-ins.
- Establishing protection from exposure to some infectious diseases.
- Maintaining safety protocols for workers in confined spaces.
- Preventing exposure to harmful chemicals.
- Maintaining guards on dangerous machines.
- Providing safety equipment, including respirators, for employees.
- Providing training, specifically for certain dangerous jobs, for a diverse workforce.
OSHA regularly reviews its standards and revises them when necessary. At times, OSHA may solicit feedback from the public to help determine new standards. The agency can begin a review of standards not only out of its own concerns but when petitioned by various parties. State and local governments, standards-producing organizations, employers, labor representatives and all interested parties can petition OSHA for a review of existing standards.
Because standards can be particularly difficult for smaller businesses to adhere to, OSHA provides additional support to these organizations. In compliance with the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act of 1996, OSHA provides compliance guides and responds promptly to inquiries from small businesses. Also, noncompliance penalties are often smaller for small businesses than for large companies.
OSHA Enforcement Actions
The primary way in which OSHA enforces the law is by carrying out inspection activities. OSHA attempts to find employers who are not in compliance with the law and who are putting their employees’ safety and health at risk. Inspections can be carried out without advance notice and can take the form of on-site or telephone investigations.
Typically, when an organization is found to be out of compliance, it is issued a citation or fine. These citations are accompanied with a list of recommendations designed to fix the problem and a date by which the problem must be resolved. If employers feel they have been unfairly cited, they can contest the citation. An independent commission known as the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission hears the protests.
OSHA maintains a severe violator program for those employers who willfully and repeatedly put their employees in danger. Severe violators are subject to mandatory follow-up inspections. OSHA does not close down a business, but if an inspection finds a hazard that poses an immediate danger to the staff, inspectors can request that all workers leave the premises. Employers that are consistently non-compliant can be summoned to court and become subject to court orders regarding their operations, including orders to fix the problem before resuming business.
The Four OSHA Categories
The OSHA requirements for employers are sorted into four broad categories. These categories are general industry, construction, maritime and agriculture. Although OSHA standards fall into four categories, the emphasis on regulations is consistently on preventing workplace hazards. In businesses where no specific OSHA standards apply, OSHA has developed a set of general regulations, known as the General Duty Clause.
OSHA General Industry Category
The general industry category is sometimes confused with the construction category, but the two are distinct. General industry businesses perform duties that do not have to do with construction, repairing or altering a structure. Businesses that have to do with farming fall under the agriculture category, while companies such as shipyards, marine terminals and longshoring fall under the maritime industry category.
If a business doesn't fall under one of the other three major categories, then it likely falls into the general industry category. With all categories of business, OSHA maintains strict standards meant to prevent injury or illness. To achieve increased safety in the general industry, OSHA recommends that businesses perform several key activities:
- Management leadership.
- Employee participation.
- Hazard identification and assessment.
- Hazard prevention and control.
- Education and training.
- Program evaluation and improvement.
Management should demonstrate a commitment to the safety and health of staff and involve employees in programs meant to improve safety. Leadership should also be active in identifying workplace hazards, evaluating risks, and putting into place controls for preventing new hazards. Workers should have access to educational and training materials that increase their knowledge of safety, and leadership should monitor the program to ensure that safety is improving.
OSHA Construction Category
OSHA points to the construction industry as one that is particularly full of extreme hazards that threaten the safety of employees. In the field of construction, people not only build structures but also alter or repair them. In the line of their duties, construction workers may be at risk of serious hazards, such as falling from high locations, being exposed to asbestos, or being struck by heavy equipment.
To help ensure the safety and health of employees, OSHA requires that businesses adhere to specific standards outlined for the construction industry. Employees should have access to their medical records and to information regarding potentially toxic substances they may be exposed to on the job. OSHA outlines regulations for various types of equipment, ranging from aerial lifts to air tools and cranes. These are only a few of the types of equipment that OSHA regulates.
Beyond these regulations, OSHA also requires much more of businesses in the construction field. For example, employers are required to monitor exposure to materials such as asbestos and provide adequate drinking water, even to remote construction sites. Companies must make clear to employees the nature of the hazards they might face during their duties and the precautions to take. Consequently, the construction industry is highly regulated.
OSHA Maritime Category
OSHA maritime standards govern the safety and health of employees in shipyards, working in marine terminals and hired for longshoring. The maritime industry includes the construction, repair and scrapping of ships and vessels. Maritime standards also apply to those who are employed moving cargo and materials.
Multiple controls and procedures have been developed to reduce the chance of injury, and training information is provided by OSHA to prevent injuries from occurring. OSHA attempts to prevent multiple hazards through training and the regulation of the maritime industry, including the following:
- Slips, trips and falls.
- Machine, equipment and fire hazards.
- Hazardous chemicals and confined spaces.
Additionally, OSHA maintains a Maritime Advisory Committee. This committee advises and consults with the Secretary of Labor to oversee safety and health in the maritime industry. The committee provides information about aspects of the industry ranging from commercial fishing to shipbreaking.
OSHA Agriculture Category
Regulations of the agriculture industry apply to both those who harvest crops and those who raise animals. Individuals who harvest crops may harvest anything from corn and cotton to fruit. Those working with livestock may work with cattle or chicken. Standards don’t apply only to animals that are processed for food but also to products created by animals, such as eggs, dairy and wool.
OSHA notes that workers in the agricultural sector are at particular risk for injury and death. Individuals in this sector may be injured in many ways, including loss of hearing and lung disease. Because of frequent exposure to the sun and the use of specific chemicals in the agriculture industry, employees may also be at risk for certain cancers.
Regulations in the OSHA industry apply to the management of many types of farm equipment and work in many areas common to a farm. Grain bins, silos and vehicle operations are all regulated in the agricultural sector. There are also specific regulations on sanitation conditions, noise, heat and the age of workers in the agricultural sectors.
OSHA General Duty Clause
The OSHA General Duty Clause is part of the United States Occupational Safety and Health Act and specifies certain obligations for all employers who don't fall into one of the four major OSHA categories. Employers that fall under the oversight of the General Duty Clause must comply with all the safety and health standards listed in the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
The General Duty Clause also insists that employers create a workplace where employees are not exposed to hazards recognized under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Hazards are considered anything in the environment that could cause serious physical harm or death to employees. The General Duty Clause mandates that employers comply with any regulations passed based on the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
Overall Focus on Regulating Businesses for Safety and Health
OSHA is a complex organization birthed from the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Its responsibilities are many, but all of its duties are focused on ensuring the safety and health of employees. The organization may not be able to close down a business, but it can enact citations and take a company to court to prevent operations until extreme hazards are resolved.
OSHA regulates almost all private businesses with few exceptions. The four categories of OSHA lay out what sort of private businesses are regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The OSHA requirements for small-business owners are almost entirely the same as for large businesses, with the only exemption made in the area of record-keeping. OSHA does not apply to self-employed individuals or immediate family members of farm employers.
Those businesses not falling within a specific category are subject to the General Duty Clause.
OSHA regulations are designed to prevent illnes and injury on the job.
- OSHA: OSH Act of 1970
- OSHA: Maritime Advisory Committee
- OSHA: Maritime Industry
- OSHA: Agricultural Operations Overview
- OSHA: Hazards & Controls
- OSHA: Construction Industry
- OSHA: Construction Industry Digest
- OSHA: General Industry Digest
- OSHA: About OSHA
- OSHA: Partial Exemption for Employers With 10 or Fewer Employees
- OSHA: All About OSHA