In the United States, the foundation of modern-day workplace health and safety government oversight is the Occupational Health and Safety Act. (Fun fact: its formal name is actually the Occupational Safety and Health Act, but it’s frequently referred to as the Occupational Health and Safety Act so we use these terms interchangeably.)
Here we take a look at this legislation to reflect on how, in intent and in practice, the Occupation Health and Safety Act regulations help to keep workers safe. We’ll also contemplate ways in which these regulations may fall short, and how safety managers and staff can step in to fill the gaps.
Looking at the Occupational Health and Safety Act Definition
The defining parameters of this act, also known as the OSH Act, are to ensure that private sector employers and the federal government provide healthy and safe workplaces for their employees. The act was established in 1970, under the Nixon administration. Before this, there was little workplace safety oversight within the United States. The act formed two important agencies.
The OSH Act created the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, known colloquially as NIOSH. It’s part of the Center for Disease Control, or CDC, which operates within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
NIOSH is, “a research agency focused on the study of worker safety and health, and empowering employers and workers to create safe and healthy workplaces.” The goal of NIOSH is to put research into practice to create greater workplace wellness. This agency deals with a huge range of topics, from hazards and disease, to chemicals and emergency preparedness
The OSH Act also created the familiar Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a.k.a. OSHA. This is the organization that oversees the regulations that the Occupational Health and Safety Act applies to, and it operates within the U.S. Department of Labor.
At its core, OSHA’s mission is, “to ensure that employees work in a safe and healthful environment by setting and enforcing standards, and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.”
OSHA’s standards are extensively documented for a huge variety of different work scenarios. You can, for instance, look to the Occupational Health and Safety Act and regulations for construction projects, as well as the Occupational Health and Safety Act and regulations for industrial establishments, and much more.
One way OSHA enforces these extensive standards is with inspectors who perform safety audits to make sure workplaces are up to code. Companies that fail audits may experience fines, and OSHA may issue fines after an employee suffers an injury if the organization finds that the company was at fault.
Another way OSHA learns about substandard safety practices is through workers. OSHA welcomes contact from employees who believe that their employer is violating their right to a safe workplace. This short OSHA video states this point. Note that this, as well as many other OSHA videos, is available both in English and in Spanish:
Many of OSHA’s activities revolve around being punitive, but the agency is also concerned with providing the education and support employers and employees need in order to maintain a safe working environment. OSHA, that is, uses both carrots and sticks.
Beyond Cuts and Bruises
While many people primarily think about OSHA as the organization that oversees physical safety, it’s important to know that this agency addresses issues having to do with mental and emotional well-being, too, such as:
- sexual harassment
The organization recognizes that mental and emotional wellness, as well as physical wellness, falls under the umbrella of safety.
Government Agencies Can’t Do It All
Federal government workplace health and safety oversight, through OSHA, helps provide standards that make sure workers stay safe. But these regulations alone won’t ensure that workers don’t get hurt. One organization, like OSHA, can’t cover every detail of every workplace in the United States, or any other country for that matter.
Workplace hazards are specific to each work environment. Precautions and protocols, therefore, need to be equally specific. They also need to be dynamic. Safety hazards change season to season, month to month, even day to day. Workplace safety is always a work in progress.
Safety Is Good for Business
The ultimate goal of the OSH Act is to keep workers safe. OSHA sets a framework that employers can use to build their own safety culture. It also supports workers who feel their rights are being violated. In addition, NIOSH generates research and resources to keep safety knowledge current and applicable.
Maintaining workplace safety, meeting regulations, and following protocols can at times feel arduous, nit picky, and overbearing. OSHA isn’t exactly every business owner’s favorite organization, despite the fact that the agency’s intent is inarguably to do good by everyone.
So it’s important to remember what this is all for and recognize that safety is a “devil in the details” pursuit. Details are often the difference between walking away healthy or being carried out injured. Those arduous-feeling efforts pay off. And in ways greater than might be immediately evident.
Of course, sending staff home after every shift uninjured is undeniably important because we don’t want people getting hurt. But also because it’s critical to a thriving business. Worker safety is a key aspect of business success and profit.
Thanks in great part to the Occupational Health and Safety Act (or Occupational Safety and Health Act, if you prefer), workplace wellness is an everyday concern in the modern US workplace.