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What Is OSHA & What Does It Do?

  • Human Resources
  • Article
  • 6 min. Read
  • Last Updated: 10/05/2023

factory workers following OSHA guidelines

Table of Contents

What is OSHA? As a business owner, you might regard the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as a heavy-handed annoyance, cracking down on violations of workplace safety. But chances are high that you share a similar perspective: that every employee has the right to go home each evening intact and healthy. OSHA exists because workplace safety cannot be taken for granted.

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 40 years of experience in the workplace safety arena and helps Paychex clients understand OSHA and its purpose, methods, and enforcement measures to help them stay in compliance and keep their employees safe.

What Is OSHA?

OSHA is a government agency that oversees the safety and health requirements that companies must meet to keep their employees safe from harm while on the job. "Just like you have taxes, just like you have environmental and disposal regulations," Ferguson says.

OSHA has seven sectors, and each has specific safety regulations. These sectors are:

"An outreach division sends representatives to small businesses to provide guidance on the regulations they have to meet,” Ferguson notes.

What Is OSHA's Mission?

OSHA was established in 1970 with the passing of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. OSHA's mission statement is to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for workers by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education, and assistance to businesses to meet those standards. The OSHA mission statement rose out of Congressional findings that "personal injuries and illnesses arising out of work situations impose a substantial burden upon, and are a hindrance to, interstate commerce in terms of lost production, wage loss, medical expenses, and disability payments. In summary, the U.S. Congress wanted U.S. workers to stay healthy.

What Does OSHA Do?

OSHA determines best practices and standards for worker safety that are specific to the seven sectors it oversees. It also requires employers to keep records of workplace incidents so it can analyze these records for trends and identify hazards that may need to be addressed both within a business and across the industry. 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, OSHA can fine your company for a violation of the regulations," Ferguson says.

Why Is OSHA Important?

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 has had a remarkable effect on workplace safety. According to the latest publicly available data from the U.S. Department of Labor, since OSHA’s inception:

  • Worker deaths in America have declined, on average, from about 38 worker deaths a day in 1970 to 13 a day in 2020.
  • Incidents of worker injury and illness have gone from 10.9 per 100 workers in 1972 to 2.7 per 100 in 2020.

Benefits of OSHA for Employers

Employers may equate OSHA with regulatory headaches, but there are many ways that OSHA benefits businesses of all sizes. Giving employees a work environment free of hazards has a ripple effect across a business that helps it grow, thrive, and be more profitable in the long term. Some of the benefits of OSHA for employers include:

  • Increased Productivity. An employee who works with an undercurrent of concern over the safety of their work environment or who is uncomfortable may not be physically or mentally able to give you their best effort. An employee focused on their job and able to give their full set of talents to work will perform better in their role. Whether it's customer service, maintenance, or research and development, an employee who feels safe is more likely to be a high performer and bring value to your business.
  • Increased Employee Retention. An uncomfortable or unprotected environment may send a message to workers that their health and safety don’t matter. Or worse, they are expendable. Over time, employees may realize their employer does not care about them, which can leave them feeling demoralized with higher levels of anxiety about their workplace. This can set the stage for a toxic work culture, which may increase employee attrition rates.
  • Reduced Absenteeism. A healthful work environment translates to fewer missed workdays due to illness or injury. This also means fewer filed insurance claims, which can help a business reduce its employer healthcare costs. Employees who can perform their job regularly are better for efficiency and productivity.
  • Protection from Legal Penalization. OSHA inspectors provide a valuable service in protecting your employees' health and your business from lawsuits. Staying up to date with OSHA regulations means a business is doing all it can to keep its workers free from job-related injury, illness, and death. Official documentation records serve as proof that a business has passed its OSHA inspection. Savings are two-fold. Not only does a business avoid paying financial penalties for non-compliance, but documents proving the employer's business is upholding all OSHA recommendations could make it more difficult for an employee to successfully sue your business for negligence that may have contributed to an incident.

Who Does OSHA Apply To?

You may be wondering, does OSHA apply to all employers?

"OSHA's regulations apply to every company out there," Ferguson 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."

Ferguson notes that specific programs apply to certain industries. She says, "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 gasses, hazardous wastes, or lead. Your employees probably need specific personal protective equipment, including gloves and masks, hearing protection, and respiratory protection. You'll need eyewash 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 Federal OSHA.

OSHA Standards and Responsibilities

In brief, OSHA covered employer responsibilities include:

  • Following all the agency's relevant safety and health standards;
  • Finding and correcting safety and health hazards;
  • Informing employees about chemical hazards through training, labels, alarms, color-coded systems, chemical information sheets, and other methods;
  • Notifying 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 [6742]);;
  • Providing required personal protective equipment at no cost to workers;
  • Keeping accurate records of work-related injuries and illnesses;
  • Posting 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 retaliating 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 Inspections

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 generally and will be heavy-handed only when necessary. 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 [6742] to locate the nearest consultation office.

OSHA Employee Rights

"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 must 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 workday in as good or better condition than they came to work that morning."

What Are the Types of OSHA Violations?

OSHA requires employers to keep accurate and detailed documentation on workplace safety protocols and incidents. The agency uses those records to analyze incidents across various industries to identify hazard trends and what businesses can do to avoid them. These records also give insight on common types of OSHA violations.

Top 10 Most-Frequently Violated OSHA Standards, Fiscal Year 2022 (October 1, 2021, to September 30, 2022)

As of 2022, the 10 most common OSHA violations and their corresponding sector are:

  1. Fall Protection, construction
  2. Hazard Communication, general industry
  3. Ladders, construction
  4. Respiratory Protection, general industry
  5. Scaffolding, construction
  6. Control of Hazardous Energy (lockout/tagout), general industry
  7. Powered Industrial Trucks, general industry
  8. Fall Protection Training, construction
  9. Eye and Face Protection, construction
  10. Machinery and Machine Guarding, general industry

OSHA Compliance Is Critical To Keep Your Business Running Smoothly

OSHA is not trying to make life difficult for employers, but history has proven that without oversight, businesses are vulnerable to overlooking the research-based protocols that keep their workers safe. When your greatest asset is your workforce, OSHA compliance is about keeping your employees safe, healthy, and happy so they can focus on making your business a success.

Paychex offers extensive safety-compliance resources to help clients avoid OSHA penalties, stabilize workers’ compensation costs, boost productivity, and reduce employee turnover.


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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

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