Employment Law -- Employer

OSHA for Employers: The Occupational and Safety Health Act

Key Takeaways

  • The OSH Act established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, tasked with workplace safety.
  • OSHA can issue fines and citations to businesses when it finds safety violations. 
  • OSHA makes compliance specialists available for businesses to make sure they are following laws and regulations.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) is one of approximately 180 federal laws that protect U.S. workers. It established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a federal agency that creates and enforces federal workplace safety standards.

This page gives a broad overview of the OSH Act. It will help you understand your obligations under the act to provide your employees with a safe work environment. It also explains OSHA’s complaint and inspection processes. You should consult an employment law attorney who represents employers if you need help complying with OSHA regulations. An attorney can also assist you with an OSHA inspection.

What Is the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Act?

Congress passed the OSH Act of 1970 to establish standards for worker safety. Key private-sector employer responsibilities under the OSH Act include:

  • Provide a workplace free from serious hazards
  • Ensure the workplace complies with OSHA standards
  • Ensure employees have access to safe, properly maintained tools and equipment
  • Warn employees of potential hazards using color codes, posters, labels, or signs
  • Establish operating procedures and communicate them to employees
  • Provide safety training in a language and vocabulary the employees can understand

This is only a partial list of responsibilities. See the full list of employer responsibilities on OSHA’s website for more information.

The act doesn’t cover the following workers:

  • Self-employed individuals
  • Workers on small family farms
  • Workers in an industry regulated by another government agency

What Is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration?

OSHA is part of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). It enforces the OSH Act and provides training and assistance to reduce work-related injuries and illnesses.

OSHA creates safety standards for specific industries like the construction, maritime, and agriculture sectors, while also setting general industry standards.

Some examples of OSHA safety standards include the prevention of:

  • Falls
  • Exposure to infectious disease
  • Trenching cave-ins

OSHA enforces the law through inspections. An employer that OSHA finds not in compliance faces penalties and fines.

OSHA’s compliance safety and health officers can’t inspect every workplace. So the agency focuses its inspections on the most hazardous workplaces. It prioritizes sites based on reported accidents, worker complaints, and referrals.

What Is an Employee Workplace Safety Complaint?

Under the OSH Act, an employee or employee representative can file a complaint with OSHA or a state agency if there is a safety issue. You cannot punish an employee who files a complaint. 

What Is the OSHA Complaint Process?

When an employee files a complaint with OSHA, the agency will determine if there are reasonable grounds to conduct an inspection. The agency may not do an inspection if you can demonstrate that you’re aware of and working to correct the hazard.

OSHA generally limits its investigations to the allegations in the complaint. But the inspector may cite violations in plain sight during an on-site inspection. The inspector may also expand the inspection based on their professional judgment or information from other employees.

Complaints dealing with high-severity hazards facing a high number of employees get priority. OSHA may handle lower-priority complaints using the off-site phone or fax inspection method.

What Is an OSHA Off-Site Investigation?

OSHA will do an off-site inspection via phone or fax if the employee complaint is low priority. The general process is as follows:

  • OSHA contacts you.
  • The investigator explains the alleged violations.
  • The investigator follows up the phone call with a fax or letter.
  • You must respond in writing within five days. The response must include any problems you found and corrective actions you are taking.
  • If the investigator decides your response is adequate, OSHA won’t schedule an inspection.
  • The investigator will give the complaining employee a copy of your response. If the employee is not satisfied with the response, they can request an on-site inspection.

What Happens During an OSHA On-Site Inspection?

If OSHA selects your work site for an on-site inspection, the inspectors will follow the following process:

  • At an opening conference, the inspectors will explain why OSHA selected your work site for an inspection and explain the inspection process. You can have a representative accompany the inspectors. Employees can also have a representative present.
  • During the walkaround, the inspectors may point out some violations that you can correct immediately. They will also ensure you have posted the official OSHA poster and review the site’s injury and illness records. Inspectors will have private conversations with employees.
  • During a closing conference, the inspectors will discuss their findings with you and the employee representative. They will go over possible courses of action. They’ll also discuss consultation services and review employee rights.

What Happens When OSHA Finds Violations?

OSHA can issue citations and fines if the inspectors find violations. OSHA must issue the citation and proposed penalty within six months. The citation will include the following:

  • Alleged violations
  • Proposed penalties
  • A deadline for corrective actions

OSHA categorizes violations based on their seriousness, the number of exposed workers, and whether the employer is a repeat offender. It sets the penalty for the violation based on the category. Maximum penalties can range from around $14,000 for serious violations to $145,000 for willful and repeated violations.

You can appeal a citation in writing within 15 working days of receiving the citation. OSHA will forward the appeal to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission for an independent review. Any citations, penalties, or abatement deadlines that you don’t settle or contest become a final order.

How Can an Employer Get Help Complying With OSHA Regulations?

OSHA has compliance assistance specialists in its regional and area offices. They provide free information about OSHA’s resources and how to comply with OSHA standards. 

OSHA’s on-site consultation program is a free, voluntary service separate from the inspection process. It gives you the opportunity to find out about potential hazards at your work site. You’ll also get information on how to improve your current safety programs.

Contact an Employment Law Attorney for Help

In addition to requesting compliance assistance directly from OSHA, an employment law attorney who represents employers can also help if you’re facing an OSHA inspection. You can confidentially discuss your questions and concerns about the inspection process, and the lawyer can represent you if you are facing a citation. 

Was this helpful?