The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a federal agency responsible for overseeing safe working conditions and standards for US workers. OSHA is part of the Department of Labor.
OSHA administers the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) of 1970, introduced to address high levels of injuries, illnesses, and fatalities in American workplaces. The OSH Act sets out a suite of employer responsibilities and employee rights in relation to occupational health and safety.
The introduction of OSHA and the OSH Act is credited with reducing workplace fatalities by almost 60% and lowering the rate of workplace illnesses and injuries.
Why Is OSHA Relevant to HR Departments?
HR is often responsible for an organization’s OSHA compliance and related tasks. These include maintaining records of workplace incidents and related injuries or illnesses, reporting certain types of incidents, providing specific documents to OSHA, and employee occupational health and safety training.
Which Organizations Does OSHA Cover?
The OSH Act covers most private sector businesses and their workers in a range of industries across the US. This includes US states, territories, and jurisdictions such as the District of Columbia, the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and American Samoa. It also covers federal agencies and their employees.
The OSH Act does not include
- self-employed workers
- immediate family members of farm workers
- employees in workplaces covered by different federal agencies and safety regulations, for example, the Coast Guard.
States can introduce their own workplace safety and health requirements. If they do so, their requirements must be at least as strict as federal requirements under the OSH Act. Many states have OSHA-approved State Plans to cover public sector employers and employees.
What Does OSHA Do?
OSHA oversees the administration of the OSH Act, including creating, monitoring, and enforcing occupational health and safety standards. This includes ensuring that the obligations of an employer are being met, and that the rights of workers under the OSH Act are protected.
OSHA develops general health and safety standards and requirements, as well as those for specific workplaces in high-risk industries. It supports employers to provide safe workplaces by offering training and resources on OSHA standards and compliance.
It similarly supports employees to exercise their rights under the OSH Act through outreach, education, and assistance, as well as by enforcing laws protecting whistleblowers.
Under the OSH Act, employers must provide a safe working environment for their employees.
Employers’ specific responsibilities include
- inspecting the workplace for hazards
- notifying employees of any hazards and providing related information and training
- recording certain workplace injuries (this applies to employers with over 10 employees, not on the list of excepted industries)
- reporting certain workplace injuries or illnesses to OSHA within set timeframes (applies to all employers)
- providing their employees with workplace health and safety training according to OSHA training guidelines
- giving employees personal protective equipment
- not discriminating or retaliating against an employee for exercising their OSHA rights.
To enforce these responsibilities, OSHA has the power to conduct workplace inspections. These inspections are often done without prior notice. OSHA can also fine employers for OSHA violations or refer serious breaches for criminal prosecution.
Employees must comply with occupational health and safety standards and rules in the workplace.
OSHA helps protect employees’ rights under the OSH Act, including the right to
- a safe work environment
- notify their employer of a workplace hazard without fear of discrimination or retaliation
- request an OSHA inspection of their workplace
- be informed about OSHA rules and regulations
- receive training in a language they understand
- report employers for potential OSHA violations
- request copies of OSHA documents relating to workplace illness or injuries
- refuse hazardous work in certain circumstances.
Tips for Ensuring OSHA compliance
As an HR department responsible for OSHA compliance, there are several things you can do to ensure you meet all your obligations.
Understand your obligations and your employees’ rights
The first step is to understand your legal obligations—both at a federal and state level—when it comes to providing a safe work environment for your employees. OSHA maintains a complete list of its standards, which is available here. For further assistance, you can also speak to an independent health and safety consultant or use the various tools and resources OSHA provides for employers.
Develop relevant policies and procedures
You can then develop policies and procedures around these obligations to ensure your organization is OSHA-compliant. These should encompass the development of a safety plan and related regular reviews, employee training programs, and recordkeeping practices. Any relevant policies and procedures should be regularly reviewed to ensure continuing OSHA compliance.
It’s essential to then communicate your policies and practices to your employees so they understand how you follow OSHA’s requirements and how they can exercise their rights under the OSH Act.
Keep detailed records of any workplace injuries or illnesses
Ensure you have systems in place to record any workplace injuries or illnesses as soon as you become aware of them. OSHA provides Form 300, Form 300A, and Form 301 for this purpose.
OSHA is a federal agency tasked with ensuring the health and safety of US workers and administering the OSH Act. To do this, OSHA develops health and safety standards, both generally as well as for specific high-risk industries. It helps employers understand and meet their obligations under the OSH Act, and ensures that employees know their corresponding rights.
As an HR department, you may need to take responsibility for your organization’s OSHA compliance. This involves understanding your OSHA obligations at both a state and federal level, identifying any hazards in your workplace, recording and reporting relevant workplace incidents, and organizing employee training.