The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, better known by its acronym OSHA, is responsible for protecting the health and safety of workers in the United States. Congress established OSHA in 1971 following the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 to ensure safe and healthy working conditions for workers by enforcing workplace laws and standards and also by providing training, information, education and assistance.
Congress enacted the OSH Act in response to annual workplace accidents that result in 14,000 deaths and 2.5 million disabled workers each year. Since its inception, OSHA has reduced work-related fatalities by more than half, and significantly reduced overall injury and illness rates in industries OSHA has focused its attention on, such as textiles and excavation. The administrator of OSHA is the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health; this position falls under the Secretary of Labor, a member of the United States Cabinet.
Most private sector employers and their employees are covered under OSHA coverage. OSHA rules apply to many industrial workplaces, from construction to marine to agriculture. The agency also covers some public sector employers and their employees, mostly through the national OSHA agencies that regulate public sector employers. However, OSHA does not cover the self-employed or direct members of farm families who do not employ workers other than family members.
OSHA extends to all 50 states and U.S. territories and jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. States may have their own federally approved occupational safety and health regulatory programs, called state plans. States must have regulations as stringent as the federal OSHA regulations, but they can also adopt more stringent regulations if they wish.
OSHA determines which standards and requirements apply to which work environment and then monitors employer compliance with those standards and requirements. OSHA sets these standards and requirements based on workplace research and input from technical experts, employers, unions and other stakeholders.
To help employers comply with the standards and requirements, OSHA provides training and resource(s) to educate employers and employees. OSHA must explain what procedures, equipment and training employers and employees should use to reduce hazards and provide safety measures specific to the employer's workplace and employees' work.
In addition to education and training, OSHA is charged with enforcement. OSHA officials can issue fines running into the tens of thousands of dollars for violations, and they can refer violators for criminal prosecution if they see fit. OSHA is also charged with identifying possible causes of work-related injuries, deaths and illnesses.
To comply with OSHA requirements, employers must take a number of specific actions, including inspecting the workplace for potential hazards, eliminating or minimizing hazards, keeping records of workplace injuries and illnesses, training employees to recognize safety and health hazards, and educating employees on precautions to prevent accidents.
OSHA also requires workers to follow rules such as complying with all applicable OSHA standards, following OSHA safety regulations, wearing required protective equipment, reporting hazardous conditions and reporting work-related injuries and illnesses.
OSHA also protects workers by guaranteeing a host of rights. These include the right to obtain copies of OSHA regulations and request information about workplace hazards, precautions and procedures; to request OSHA inspections if they believe there are hazardous conditions or violations in their workplace; and to refuse to be exposed to the risk of death or serious bodily injury.
In addition, OSHA and federal laws protect employees who complain or report possible violations to their employers, OSHA or other agencies from retaliation. Employers may not take adverse personnel action against a whistleblower, and employees who believe their legal rights have been violated may file a complaint with OSHA for employer retaliation.
OSHA has several programs to further its mission. For example, the Alliance Program allows employers, unions, trade or professional groups, government agencies and educational institutions to work with OSHA to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses. Meanwhile, the Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP) provides incentives and support for employers to develop and implement workplace safety and health programs.