HR 101: the ABCs of OSHA

OSHA regulations ensure employees have a safe working environment. Here’s what employers need to know about workplace safety laws.

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been protecting American workers since 1971. While many Americans assume the agency works mainly for production lines and coal mines, their reach goes far beyond.

OSHA regulations and standards ensure employees have a safe working environment and working conditions. Anywhere workers are on the clock, OSHA has jurisdiction.

Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, creating OSHA. The agency ensures safe and healthy working conditions, creates and enforces workplace standards, and provides guidance, training, and assistance to business.

OSHA is part of the U.S. Department of Labor. Their mission: protect the safety and health of America’s workers.

Why do workplaces and employees need OSHA?

In the decades prior to OSHA’s creation, an estimated 15,000 workers were dying on the job annually. House member William A. Steiger reported that in the 25 years before the Act, over 400,000 workers were killed due to work-related accidents and disease. Another 50 million suffered disabling injuries on the job.

The need to protect workers was clear. Lawmakers passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) in 1970 and it became effective in 1971. The Act created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration which began developing standards for workplace safety.

The first set of standards, published in May 1971, set permissible limits of exposure to over 400 toxic substances commonly used in the workplace. These included asbestos, cotton dust, arsenic, lead, vinyl chloride, coke oven emissions, and more.

Many of these are still in effect today, with the list expanding as needed. Early standards addressed hearing conservation, machinery safety, and a range of health issues commonly found and reported.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that workplace deaths were reduced by 50% and work-related injuries reduced by 40% since the establishment of OSHA.

Which workplaces are governed by OSHA?

There are 4 groups in which OSHA has created and administers standards for employers. These OSHA standards are for General Industry, Construction, Maritime, and Agriculture. The General Industry category applies to the largest number of worksites and workers.

When there is not an established OSHA standard in place, employers must keep workplaces free of known hazards.

Examples of OSHA standards include access to safety and personal protection equipment (PPE); measures that prevent exposure to harmful materials; and protection and safety protocols for hazardous and dangerous machinery.

When there is not an established OSHA standard in place, employers must keep workplaces free of known hazards. Commonly known as the ‘General Duty’ clause, this requires businesses to provide safe working conditions for employees.

The General Duty clause specifically requires employers furnish ‘employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.’ Whether an employer or industry is singled out by OSHA, all employers must adhere to the General Duty clause to protect their workers.

What size business does OSHA apply to?

Almost all businesses are under OSHA’s purview. Businesses with fewer than 10 employees may not have to maintain the records required by the Agency, but are still required to keep the workplace safe.

Some industries are categorized by OSHA as low-hazard: these do not have to maintain OSHA records, regardless of size. They include finance, retail, service industries, real estate, and insurance.

However, whatever the size or industry, businesses are required to maintain a safe workplace and to report any events that caused the death or hospitalization of 3 or more workers.

Did COVID expand OSHA authority?

The COVID-19 pandemic expanded OSHA’s reach more specifically into low-hazard industries. In addition to adhering to the General Duty clause, the Agency required businesses to provide PPE, like masks, in response to the virus. Other mitigation effort requirements include barriers, distance markings, and hand sanitizers.

In response to the pandemic, OSHA created an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) in 2021 that would require businesses with more than 100 employees to develop, implement, and enforce vaccination policies. The ETS recommended regular testing for COVID-19 and the use of face coverings at work for employees who were unvaccinated.

In January 2022, the Supreme Court issued a temporary halt to the ETS pending lawsuits in the lower courts and potential rule revisions by the Agency. Despite the ETS moratorium, businesses still must provide personal protection equipment (PPE) and other mitigation efforts in some industries, like healthcare, and in areas where the virus continues to be a threat.

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How does OSHA impact the workplace and employers?

The Agency regulates American workplaces in several ways. OSHA sets standards for employers to follow; requires training for workers on safe use of materials and equipment; and requires businesses to maintain accident, injury, and fatality reporting and record keeping.

Setting standards

OSHA standards are in place, developed with businesses, safety experts, and workers, in many industries. For these, established protocols and requirements are accessible to assure compliance with the law and safety for workers and work sites.

To create standards, OSHA conducts lengthy and extensive investigations. These include public notices, engagement, and comments. To develop a standard, the agency must demonstrate that a significant risk exists that threatens workers and that there are measures employers can take to mitigate or eliminate the risk.

Some standards are very specific: they include the types of PPE required, for example, for employees exposed to hazardous chemicals. They can include basics, like respirators and eye protection for employees who work with chemicals or paints; or ear protection for workers subjected to high-decibel work areas.

OSHA standards also require head and foot protection, like hard hats and steel-toed shoes. In high-risk industries, specific sanitation is required. Others require guards on machinery to keep workers safe and distanced.

Engineering controls

OSHA endorses engineering controls that plan for accidents and injuries, and mitigate their potential. Engineering controls either isolate risk; eliminate risk; or use controls to minimize risk.

Businesses are responsible for providing workers with the necessary training for proper use of equipment, materials, and safety equipment to protect them on the job.

These can include physical barriers that keep employees away from hazards; increasing ventilation where needed; using portable heaters or air conditioning units to offset heat stress or hypothermia; or using noise-dampening absorption panels.

Another control is education. Businesses are responsible for providing workers with the necessary training for proper use of equipment, materials, and safety equipment (like fire extinguishers) to protect them on the job. Another requirement is that businesses must provide PPE to reduce risk where engineering controls or other standards do not provide sufficient protection.

Required signage

For workers in contact with hazardous or heavy machinery, standards include specific signage to warn employees. OSHA-compliant signs have specific colors and categories including Danger, Warning, Caution, and Notice.

Signs must be in specific colors based on the level of threat or information required. Orange or yellow and black hazard tape on and around machinery warns people to maintain a safe distance.

Signs outline hazardous conditions the equipment may pose. Lockout/Tagout procedures, training, and signage apply when equipment fails or is shut down.

Known hazardous chemicals each have OSHA-approved signage and logos. These notify the worker of the danger:  flammable, oxidizing, explosive, gas under pressure, toxic, serious health hazard, health hazard, and corrosive and environmental hazard.

Areas where there is a danger of slips, trips, or falls have their own types of signs. Other physical hazards including ergonomic hazards like repetitive stress injuries; exposure to radiation; and heat and cold stress. Vibration or noise hazards also require warning, training and signage.

Slippery/wet flooring signs are some of the most common. Most industries have warning signage throughout the facility. As these become more familiar they may be easy to ignore, but signage is a critical tool in keeping the workplace safe.

Require training

Where needed, OSHA requires specific training on safety and health risks on the job. In addition to mandatory training, the Agency created the OSHA Training Institute to train compliance officers, federal personnel, and the public on workplace safety and health. Individuals earn OSHA certification in a variety of safety and compliance areas.

The Agency offers an OSHA 10-hour course for employees: the OSHA 30 hour certification is for at supervisors and safety directors. Both courses deal with construction, general industry, or maritime safety and health hazards. Businesses can access the courses through the agency or through private providers.

Training standards put the responsibility on businesses to ensure workers are competent or qualified to perform work or use equipment safely. This will require specific training on health and safety hazards, chemical ‘rights to know,’ fall protection, PPE, confined spaces, and more.

In some industries, like construction, training includes the safe use of poisons, caustics and harmful substances; what to do on job sites where harmful plants or animals may be present; handling flammable liquids or materials; how to enter enclosed or confined spaces; how to work safely on scaffolding; and others.

Specific information about the safety and safe use of chemicals must be provided to all employees. These must include labeling, warnings, and safety data sheets (SDSs) for all hazardous materials.

There are many other workplace-, industry-, and job-specific guidelines and training materials available for workers and employers through OSHA as well as association and private websites.

What rights does OSHA provide for employees?

OSHA requires businesses to inform employees of their right to a safe workplace and to safety training whenever they work near or with hazardous materials or conditions. Employee notifications include the right to training in a language the employee can understand.

Management must inform workers of their right to file a complaint with OSHA if they believe they are exposed to hazardous working conditions. In most instances, OSHA will maintain the confidentiality of the complainant, however, employees have the right to file complaints without fear or retaliation or reprisal.

If employees are demoted, terminated, or retaliated against in any way following a complaint, employees have 30 days to notify OSHA for further action.

What records and reports are required by OSHA?

For businesses with more than 10 workers in non-exempt industries, OSHA requires careful record keeping and reporting to the Agency. These include setting up a record keeping system with logs available on request.

OSHA can perform a workplace inspection at any time with any employer. Businesses must maintain and submit annual summary records.

OSHA requires reporting for accidents and injuries in some instances. Following an update in 2015, employers are required to notify OSHA (through their local OSHA office or online). OSHA requires reports for:

  • All work-related fatalities
  • All work-related in-patient hospitalizations of 1 or more employees
  • Reports are also required for all work-related amputations
  • All work-related losses of an eye

Employers must report work-related fatalities within 8 hours of learning about the death. Only fatalities that occur within 30 days of the work-related incident must be reported.

In the event of an in-patient hospitalization, amputation, or eye loss, employers must report the incident within 24 hours of learning about it. These must be reported to OSHA only if they occur within 24 hours of the work-related incident.

Can OSHA help me keep my workplace safe?

The Agency offers free confidential advice, programs, and services to help businesses identify and correct potential hazards. These can improve injury and illness prevention on the job. The On-Site Consultation OSHA provides is a free, confidential service. It is available for businesses with fewer than 250 workers at a site and no more than 500 across the country.

These consultations allow businesses to create a safer work environment without the fear of penalties or citations — consultants are separate from the enforcement arm of OSHA. About 30,000 businesses use the services annually for free compliance assistance.

Companies can work with OSHA professionals to learn about existing protocols, or to develop new procedures specific to the work performed and the workplace.

What does an OSHA workplace inspection involve?

OSHA may inspect any workplace at any time. OSHA performs inspections without notice, either randomly or in response to a complaint. Inspections are in 3 stages:

  1. Opening conference;
  2. Walk-around and/or full company inspection, document review, and employee interviews; and
  3. Closing conference.

OSHA officials can order a work stoppage if they find a significant risk, but they do not have the authority to close a business completely. They may seek a court order to do so, however.

If the risk is not imminent, they may require corrections and issue citations with penalties. Penalties can go up to 6 figures, with multiple charges for repeat violations.

In 2020, OSHA reported the most frequent violations:

  1. Fall Protection (5,424 violations)
  2. Hazard Communication (3,199 violations)
  3. Respiratory Protection (2,649 violations)
  4. Scaffolding (2,538 violations)
  5. Ladders (2,129 violations)

Fall hazards, including slips, trips, and falls are the most reported violations. OSHA’s general industry regulations on walking or working surfaces guard against hazards that include protruding objects, clutter, and wet conditions.

These hazards can affect anyone in the workplace, regardless of industry or job duties. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, slips, trips, and falls cause almost 700 deaths annually, and many more injuries.

Do individual states have OSHA workplace regulations?

Currently, 22 states have their own OSHA agencies and regulations. The federal authority monitors these and, at minimum, requires compliance with all federal laws. Many states have additional regulations to prevent work-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths.

OSHA has been protecting workers and workplaces for over 50 years: before its inception, lives were lost, and injuries were sustained too often in the workplace. The standards set and enforced by OSHA not only save lives, they also increase productivity and morale. Providing the best possible work environment underscores your commitment to employees — which begins with workplace safety.

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