What is OSHA? And Other Workplace Safety Questions Answered
Getting to know the thousands of standards and regulations set by OSHA can be extremely daunting for HR professionals and business leaders, but we’re required by law to comply with them (and we can't claim ignorance as our defense in law proceedings).
OSHA isn’t just for high-risk workplaces — violations happen every day in offices, medical practices, retail outlets, and leisure facilities all across the U.S. Blocked sprinkler heads, furniture obstructing fire exits, paper left near heat sources…these are all violations that can happen in any workplace.
This guide is intended to provide a quick overview of OSHA and answer some of the most frequently asked questions about OSHA laws.
First, What is OSHA?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the main federal agency responsible for the enforcement of safety and health legislation in all workplaces.
It sets workplace safety and health standards (either on its own initiative or in response to petitions from other parties) using a rulemaking process that includes public hearings about potential standards, which allows employers to help shape them.
In addition to setting these standards, OSHA also makes sure we follow them by carrying out a variety of enforcement activities, which include onsite inspections conducted without advance notice. These inspections are usually carried out on a priority basis, with precedence given to:
- Imminent danger, such as an unstable building or the presence of toxic substances
- Worker complaints and referrals
- Severe violations, such as hazards that could result in death or serious injury
Targeted inspections are also carried out at workplaces where there are an unusually high number of reported injuries or illnesses.
It’s also up to OSHA to ensure safe and healthful work environments for employees by providing training, outreach, education, and assistance to both employers and workers. The aim of these programs is to help broaden knowledge on the recognition, avoidance, and prevention of safety and health hazards in the workplace.
Which are the Most Commonly Violated OSHA Guidelines?
At the end of October last year, OSHA released a list of the 10 most frequently cited standards following inspections of worksites. We’ve included the first five from that list here, along with a brief description of the relevant OSHA guidelines relating to these standards. We’ve also linked to the appropriate pages on the OSHA website which go into further detail.
- Fall protection
Falls are one of the most common causes of serious work-related injuries. OSHA standards require that fall protection (such as guards, toe boards, handrails, and harnesses) to prevent falling from overhead platforms and elevated work stations when working at heights of more than four feet in general industry workplaces, and at six feet in construction.
In most workplaces, fall protection will mean more common slip and trip prevention. Violations include improper use of mats or signs when spillages occur or rain is tracked inside; as well as damaged, warped, or uneven flooring.
- Hazard communication
Chemicals pose a wide variety of health and physical hazards, and not just in manufacturing and construction. In general industry workplaces, hazardous chemicals could include cleaning chemicals and some chemicals commonly used in printing, and these should be treated with the same precaution as industrial hazards.
OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard is designed to ensure that information about these hazards and protective measures are distributed appropriately. This means putting up appropriate signage, making sure chemicals are stored correctly in properly labeled containers, and training staff on their appropriate use.
Most scaffold-related injuries result from either the planking or support giving way, slipping, or being struck by a falling object. OSHA’s standards to prevent this happening include height restrictions, weight limits, fittings, restraints, and supports. Workplaces in all industries undergo construction, so if there's scaffolding, proper care needs to be taken to ensure OSHA guidelines are met.
- Respiratory protection
In industrial workplaces, respirators protect workers from insufficient oxygen and harmful dusts, fogs, smokes, mists, gases vapors, and sprays, and providing necessary respirators could avert hundreds of deaths and thousands of illnesses every year.
However, ensuring that everyday work environments have access to safe, clean air is also imperative. Indoor air quality is of the utmost importance, and violations could include overly humid environments, poor ventilation, mold from water damage, and exposure to other chemicals (including asbestos).
- Powered industrial trucks
Powered industrial trucks (forklifts) present a variety of operating hazards, including falling load accidents, pedestrian safety, and crashes and falls of the truck itself (off a dock, for example). OSHA requires that powered industrial truck drivers are over 18 years old and properly trained and certified to operate these vehicles.
Frequently Asked Workplace Safety Questions
The OSHA website answers many frequently asked questions, and those particularly relevant to HR managers and business leaders in the everyday workplace have been expanded upon here.
Is workplace violence covered by OSHA?
"Workplace violence" is violence or the threat of violence against workers, and can range from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and homicide. Homicide is one of the leading causes of job-related deaths, according to the CDC, and some workers operate at a greater risk than others, such as those working alone in areas with a high crime rate, or those transporting goods or cash.
Under the General Duty Clause, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 states that employers “shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which is free from recognized hazards that are causing, or are likely to cause, death or serious physical harm to his employees.”
While OSHA does not include a specific regulation addressing workplace violence, the courts have interpreted OSHA's General Duty Clause to mean that we have a legal obligation to provide a workplace free of conditions or activities that are recognized as hazardous when there is a feasible way to do so. This means courts are increasingly holding us liable for our employees’ violent and dangerous behavior if it’s deemed that we didn’t take appropriate action to prevent the harm. This is known as negligent hiring.
Negligent hiring involves a claim that an employer had reason to believe, or could have determined by reasonable investigation, that the applicant was dangerous but hired him or her anyway. This means that when negligent hiring results in the injury of another, the risk of harm is considered “foreseeable.”
As well as using OSHA’s workplace violence prevention programs for evaluating and controlling violence in the workplace, the best method of defense against being found liable for negligent hiring is carrying out a pre-employment screening process that includes a thorough background check. Once hired, it's our job to keep an eye out for potential workplace violence. The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry’s Workplace Violence Prevention Guide contains suggestions for how to identify the risk factors and symptoms of workplace violence, specifically when carried out by employees.
What are the penalties for violating an OSHA standard?
Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, we, as employers, are responsible
for ensuring a workplace is safe and not hazardous to our employees’ health.
The maximum penalty OSHA can fine a business is $7,000 for each serious violation, such as a failure to require employees carrying heavy loads to wear steel-toe boots, and $70,000 for a repeated or willful violation, such as when the failure to implement proper precautionary measures results in death or serious injury.
What injuries and illnesses are we required to report to OSHA?
OSHA requires that any work-related fatality is reported to them within eight hours. All work-related, in-patient hospitalizations, amputations, and losses of an eye should be reported within 24 hours.
This can be done by calling 1-800-321-OSHA (6742), by calling into your nearest OSHA office during normal business hours, or reporting it online.
How do we keep up to date with new OSHA regulations or changes to current ones?
To find out about changes to OSHA regulations or when new ones are issued, the best thing to do is to subscribe to OSHA’s e-newsletter, QuickTakes.
It’s a free, twice-monthly publication that provides all of the latest news about OSHA initiatives so that we’re able to find and prevent workplace hazards.
Does OSHA stipulate how many consecutive hours employees are allowed to work?
Surprisingly, OSHA doesn’t have any specific regulations on long working hours, and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA) also doesn’t limit the number of hours per day or per week that employees aged 16 or older can be required to work.
Some states, however, do have break regulations. For example, California requires a paid, 10-minute rest period for each four hours worked (as well as a half-hour meal period after no more than five hours). Others require a minimum length of meal period based on the amount of time worked, and these can be found on the DOL website.
Is OSHA training mandatory?
The OSHA Outreach Training Program is voluntary, and provides education for workers and employers on the recognition, avoidance, abatement, and prevention of safety and health hazards in the workplace.
However, many standards set by OSHA explicitly require us to train employees in the safety and health aspects of their job, and others require that we limit the responsibility for certain tasks to employees who are certified, competent or qualified. Therefore, it’s a good idea to get this training to make sure we’re providing the correct information.
It's our responsibility as HR professionals and business leaders to provide a safe work environment. OSHA is the governing body that makes sure we do so, whether we work at a big construction site or a two-person office
It’s also important to remember that OSHA wants us to be successful in our efforts to provide a safe workplace. It doesn't exist just to penalize us — it also provides us valuable resources for keeping our employees out of harm's way.
To find out more about how you can protect your employees and your business, check out our frequently asked questions.