As a business owner, you might regard the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as the bad guy, cracking down on violations of workplace safety. But doesn't every employee have the right to expect to go home each evening intact and healthy? OSHA exists because workplace safety can't be taken for granted. Every business has hazards, from insurance offices to medical facilities to factory floors. OSHA, established in 1970 under the Department of Labor, "assure[s] safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education, and assistance."
OSHA has had a remarkable effect on workplace safety. Since its inception:
- Workplace fatality rates have dropped more than 66 percent, and occupational injury and illness rates have declined by 67 percent.
- At the same time, U.S. employment has almost doubled. Worker deaths in America have declined, on average, from about 38 worker deaths a day in 1970 to 12 a day in 2013.
- Incidents of worker injury and illness have gone from 10.9 per 100 workers in 1972 to 3.3 per 100 in 2013.
Laurel Ferguson, a Paychex safety and loss control expert, provides an overview of the agency useful to employers and employees alike. Ferguson has more than 35 years' experience in the workplace safety arena and helps client companies understand OSHA's purpose, its methods and its enforcement measures to help them stay in compliance.
What is OSHA's mission, and how is it structured?
"OSHA is a government agency that oversees the safety and health requirements that companies have to meet to comply with regulations," she says. "Just like you have taxes, just like you have environmental and disposal regulations." OSHA's various divisions, including
- agriculture, forestry and fishing;
- transportation, communication, electric, gas and sanitary services;
- wholesale trade;
- retail trade;
- finance, insurance and real estate;
- services; and
- public administration
have specific safety regulations. An outreach division sends representatives to small businesses to provide guidance on the regulations they have to meet, Ferguson notes.
OSHA standards include protecting employees against falls, cave-ins, exposure to infectious diseases and harmful substances, machinery accidents and hazards from confined spaces. Standards also encompass the provision of respirators or other safety equipment, and training for certain dangerous jobs.
OSHA's enforcement division is responsible for conducting workplace inspections. "Just like a police officer who sees a crime in progress, and can cite or arrest you, so OSHA can fine your company for a violation of the regulations," Ferguson says.
What does an employer need to know about OSHA?
"OSHA's regulations apply to every company out there," she emphasizes. "There isn't a company in business that doesn't have at least one OSHA regulation that applies to it. "Emergency action, for example—everyone has to know how to get out of the building in an emergency."
Specific programs apply to certain industries, Ferguson notes. "Let's say you have a manufacturing company—a number of OSHA programs will apply. Accident investigation and emergency action are your basics. If you have more than 10 employees on your payroll, you're likely subjected to OSHA record-keeping requirements in addition to an accident investigation program. You must have electrical precautions and hazard communication for your chemicals, flammable liquids, compressed gases, hazardous wastes, or lead. Your employees probably need specific personal protective equipment, including gloves and masks, hearing protection, and respiratory protection. You'll need eye-wash stations for chemical exposures. If any employees work at height—using aerial lifts, scissors lifts, scaffolding or ladders—you might have to comply with fall protection regulations."
States may have their own safety regulations, in addition to OSHA's.
In brief, OSHA requires that employers:
- Follow all the agency's relevant safety and health standards;
- Find and correct safety and health hazards;
- Inform employees about chemical hazards through training, labels, alarms, color-coded systems, chemical information sheets, and other methods;
- Notify OSHA within eight hours of a workplace fatality or within 24 hours of any work-related inpatient hospitalization, amputation, or loss of an eye (1-800-321-OSHA ); www.osha.gov/report.html);
- Provide required personal protective equipment at no cost to workers;
- Keep accurate records of work-related injuries and illnesses;
- Post OSHA citations, injury and illness summary data, and the OSHA "Job Safety and Health—It's The Law" poster where all staff will see it; and
- Not retaliate against any worker for using his or her rights under the law.
OSHA documentation requirements
If a company has more than 10 employees on the payroll, OSHA record-keeping requirements take effect, Ferguson says. "For example, if you require your employees to wear personal protective equipment, you must document what protective equipment you have and why you need it. If you use chemicals at your worksite, you must have safety data sheets for each of those chemicals and information available to your employees on the hazards they pose. If you have more than 10 employees, OSHA requires you to have a written emergency-action plan that designates all responsibilities."
OSHA conducts workplace inspections without advance notice, either on site or via phone or fax. Trained compliance officers conduct inspections, and prioritize their efforts according to:
- Imminent danger;
- Catastrophes or fatalities;
- Worker complaints and referrals;
- Targeted inspections focused on high injury/illness rates and/or severe violators; and
- Follow-up inspections.
OSHA takes the mentor role, however, and comes in as the heavy only when necessary. Ferguson points out that the agency offers small businesses free, confidential consultation to help employers identify and correct job hazards and improve accident-prevention programs. Visit the OSHA consultation website or call 1-800-321-OSHA  to locate the nearest consultation office.
What do employees need to know about OSHA?
"Employees should know that OSHA is there to protect their health and safety, and make sure that the company they work for is doing things properly," Ferguson says. "If you work with a piece of machinery, for instance, it has to have specific safeguards to protect you from getting your fingers cut off. If you work with chemicals, OSHA mandates that your employer make available specific information on the hazards of those chemicals—and tell you how to obtain that information from the company."
OSHA makes clear that employees have the right to:
- Working conditions that do not pose a risk of serious harm;
- Receive information and training (in a language they can understand) about chemical and other hazards, ways to prevent harm, and OSHA standards that apply to their workplace;
- Review records of work-related injuries and illnesses;
- Get copies of test results to find and measure hazards in the workplace;
- Ask OSHA to inspect their workplace if they believe a serious hazard exists or that the employer is not following OSHA rules; and
- Use their legal rights without retaliation.
Note that OSHA's oversight does not extend to self-employed workers, government workers (except in state plan states) or to workplace hazards regulated by other federal agencies.
"OSHA does many things to protect employees," Ferguson says. "Its primary goal is to make sure that everyone goes home at the end of the work day in as good or better condition than they came to work that morning."
Top 10 most-frequently violated OSHA standards, fiscal year 2014 (Oct. 1, 2013 through Sept. 30, 2014)*
- Fall protection, construction
- Hazard communication standard, general industry
- Scaffolding, general requirements, construction
- Respiratory protection, general industry
- Powered industrial trucks, general industry
- Control of hazardous energy (lockout/tagout), general industry
- Ladders, construction
- Electrical, wiring methods, components and equipment, general industry
- Machinery and Machine Guarding, general requirements
- Electrical systems design, general requirements, general industry
Paychex offers extensive safety-compliance resources to help clients avoid OSHA penalties, stabilize worker compensation costs, boost productivity and reduce employee turnover.