Who is OSHA and What Does it Stand For?
What is OSHA?
OSHA stands for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It's a federal agency under the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) charged with implementing and enforcing the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) of 1970.
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OSHA's Meaning and Mission
OSHA's mission is "to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for workers by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education, and assistance."
In reality, OSHA isn't responsible for the entire U.S. workforce.
Some workers, like miners, are protected by agencies that pre-date OSHA. In other cases, enforcing worker safety and health requires specialized equipment or knowledge, so it makes more sense for an industry-specific agency to add it to its responsibilities. And some workers are completely out of their purview.
Who is OSHA Responsible For?
OSHA – or a state agency overseen by OSHA – applies to most private-sector employers in:
- All 50 states
- Washington, DC
- All U.S. territories
- The outer continental shelf lands
Additionally, OSHA regulates federal agencies and their employees. In 26 states and 2 territories, there is an OSHA-approved State Plan that also protects anyone working for state, territorial, and local governments (known as public-sector workers).
OSHA does NOT cover:
- Self-employed individuals
- Public-sector employees in jurisdictions without a relevant OSHA-approved State Plan
- Immediate family members of farm employers
- Workplace hazards regulated by another federal agency, including the:
- Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA)
- U.S. Coast Guard
- U.S. Department of Energy
- The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
In cases where another agency is involved in workplace safety and health, OSHA isn't entirely out of the picture. They retain some responsibilities, including whistleblower protections.
What is OSHA's Approach to Ensuring Workplace Safety and Health?
Protecting a large and diverse workforce from threats to their safety and health is a big job. OSHA uses a multi-pronged approach to get it done.
Establishing Workplace Safety Standards
OSHA creates regulations with the goal of removing or mitigating hazards to worker safety and health. Safety standards are published under Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Parts 1902-1990.
Approving and Monitoring State Plans
States and territories are allowed to make and enforce their own workplace safety regulations with a "state plan."
State plans need to be "at least as effective" as federal standards to be approved by OSHA. After approval, funding and enforcement responsibilities are handed over to a state agency. The state handles the day-to-day work, but the federal agency retains oversight.
Requiring Occupational Safety Training
OSHA requires employers to provide safety training to all workers in a language and with vocabulary that workers can understand.
Some standards explicitly require training, but there's also a general requirement for employers to train their employees in anything they need to know to do their job safely.
Investigating Complaints and Protecting Whistleblowers
Any worker under OSHA jurisdiction can file an anonymous safety and health complaint against their employer, and OSHA will investigate the complaint.
There are also whistleblower protections for complainants. Employers aren't allowed to punish you for reporting a potential safety or health violation, and OSHA's list of what counts as retaliation is pretty thorough.
Conducting On-Site Workplace Inspections
OSHA regularly conducts on-site safety and health inspections of high-risk workplaces and businesses with poor safety records.
They also inspect workplaces as a result of worker complaints, reported injuries and illnesses, and referrals from other agencies or organizations.
Enforcing Safety Standards
When an investigation or inspection finds a violation of OSHA standards, they issue a citation – often with a fine – and set a deadline for correcting the issue.
They may shut down a worksite if the violation presents an imminent danger.
Tracking Workplace Injuries and Illnesses
OSHA requires employers to report serious injuries and illnesses to the agency immediately. Employers also have to record more minor incidents in a log, to be reviewed during an inspection or investigation.
What is OSHA's Track Record?
We only have a rough guess at the number of workplace injuries and illnesses suffered before 1970 because no one was keeping track.
During the passage of the OSH Act, the bill's sponsor estimated that between 1945 and 1970, more than 400,000 Americans were killed by work-related accidents and disease, while "close to" 50 million suffered disabling injuries.
And the problem was getting worse. Lawmakers estimated that over the course of the 1960s, there had been a 20% increase in disabling injuries.
In the 50 years since its founding, OSHA has had an enormous impact on worker safety.
They've presided over an 83% reduction in work-related deaths. In 1970, it's estimated that 38 workers died per day in a workforce of 56 million. In 2019, 15 workers died per day in a workforce of 130 million.
They've also seen a 75% reduction in non-fatal injuries and illnesses. In 1972 (the first year with clear records), there were 10.9 non-fatal injuries and illnesses per 100 workers. In 2020, it was 2.7.
What is OSHA's future?
The deepest cuts in worker mortality and morbidity are behind us because the direst threats have been regulated for decades. As new workplace hazards arise, like COVID-19, OSHA will continue to adapt and protect us if we let it.
In 2017, OSHA recorded more workplace deaths than it had in a decade. Not coincidentally, the number of OSHA inspectors reached a historic low that year due to budget cuts and the failure to fill vacancies. Due to staffing shortages, enforcement activities continued to decline, including the number of high-penalty cases.
The gains we've gotten in worker safety since OSHA's inception aren't permanent. Continued safety depends on OSHA being well-funded and well-staffed.