March 29, 2023

What is OSHA?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is an agency of the United States federal government that focuses on workplace safety issues. While the agency strives to balance the needs of both employers and employees, their primary mission is to maintain and enforce occupational standards that preserve the health of workers. Businesses in virtually every major industry are subject to the rules set by the administration and failure to comply can lead to enforcement action in proportion to the frequency or severity of violations.

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Setting Occupational Safety Standards

To accomplish its primary mission, OSHA has established a comprehensive set of standards that includes both specific and general workplace requirements. Many of these regulations are specific to certain high-risk industries or those with special concerns, like maritime, construction and agriculture. The organization also has specific standards that protect whistleblowers who report violations or unsafe conditions at their job. They also publish a regulatory agenda and provide an opportunity for public commentary on proposed rules before they are formally established.

Enforcement Mechanism and Action

Employers who fail to comply with applicable OSHA regulations expose themselves to enforcement action by the agency. Work sites must be able to pass inspection by certified investigators, particularly those that qualify for emphasis programs that focus on hazardous industries. Employers who fail to comply with standards can expose themselves to additional liability in the event of an employee injury. Violations can also result in sizable fines that scale with the nature and severity of the offense, with willful or repeat violations costing over $100,000, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Public Outreach and Education

While setting and enforcing standards are the primary roles of the organization, OSHA also conducts numerous outreach, educational and training efforts designed to reduce injuries in the workplace. This includes ample resources for employers who want to improve safety in their workplace as well as information for workers exposed to occupational health risks. The organization’s website also offers various digital resources, like educational videos and specific guides, for various situations that employees may encounter while at work.

History and Governance

The foundation for the agency was officially set with the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970. The act was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon and OSHA was formally established in the following year. The administration is considered an agency of the US Department of Labor and is currently overseen by the Assistant Secretary of Labor or the person officially acting in that capacity. While the administration’s regulations cover the majority of employers in the US, there are a few notable industries and institutions that are excluded. Self-employed individuals and those working for certain government organizations, like the Coast Guard, are not subject to these rules.

Conforming to health and safety standards does require awareness, adaptation, and investment, but the reduction of injury often minimizes the overall cost of adherence to these standards. Ultimately, OSHA standards protect both workers and their employers from lost work time and liability associated with serious occupational injuries.