OSHA at 50: Reflections on a Half-Century of Safety
Posted on April 28, 2020 | in EHS
This year, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is commemorating 50 years since the enactment of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, which was signed into law on December 29, 1970.
In honor of this major milestone, OSHA is announcing its re-commitment to the Agency’s fundamental mission of ensuring safe and healthful working conditions, and expanding its employer outreach to further secure their collective support in achieving that critical mission.
Since today also happens to be Workers Memorial Day, now is a perfect time to take a look back on OSHA’s legacy and central role in safeguarding the US workforce.
A Little Background
I personally became aware of OSHA in 1978. I was six years old then, and OSHA was eight.
My father worked in the manufacturing industry when he was a young man, but by the time I was born he was Director of Environmental Control for Cook County, Illinois – a position he held until the mid- 1980s. Because of that background, my father knew many people who’d worked in local manufacturing facilities, and sometimes I got to meet them. People would approach him at restaurants, or at his Cook County Office when I’d occasionally visit him, and I’d notice that quite a few of them walked with a limp, while others had very visible scars. One gentleman was missing a finger on his right hand.
I believe it was the meeting of that last person that sparked my curiosity, and caused me to ask my dad what had happened to the man’s finger. My dad told me that the man had been in an accident at work years ago, in which he’d placed his hand near a mechanical blade. He also explained that many of the other people I’d met had also had workplace injuries due to unsafe work conditions, “in the days before OSHA.” “What’s an OSHA?” I asked. He told me that they were part of the US government, and that they told businesses the things they needed to do to help keep their workers safe.
Many years later, while beginning my career in EHS as an undergraduate, I learned a lot more about the history and purpose of OSHA. I learned that the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 created and authorized the agency, due to growing awareness of workplace safety issues like those that had injured those individuals I’d met many years earlier. As I learned more as a graduate student, I came to understand how much of a positive impact OSHA has had on workplace safety. For example, since OSHA first opened its doors, workplace fatality rates have fallen by 50% and overall occupational injury rates have dropped by 40%. There is still considerable debate about how much OSHA has directly contributed to those safety improvements, but most people acknowledge that OSHA has played a positive role through its standards, enforcement and public outreach to improve awareness of safe work practices throughout industry.
Before we discuss some of OSHA’s regulatory history, we should remember that most workplaces are covered by OSHA requirements, but not all of them are.
The OSH Act covers most private sector employers and their workers, in addition to some public sector employers and workers in states and jurisdictions under federal authority. Those jurisdictions include the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Wake Island, Johnston Island, and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands as defined in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.
The OSH Act does not apply to self-employed people, immediate family members working on a family-owned farm, or to employees at workplaces subject to safety regulation by other federal agencies, such as the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Federal agency employers must have safety and health programs as protective as those required by OSHA for private employers.
There is a gap in coverage when it comes to state and local government employees. Federal OSHA does not cover these employees. There are twenty-eight federally approved state OSHA plans that cover state and local government workers, but that leaves many states and jurisdictions with no formal protection of those workers by either federal or state OSHA authority. Even so, many of these states choose to follow OSHA regulations as occupational health and safety best practice.
The General Duty Clause
The General Duty Clause (GDC) predates OSHA’s existence as a regulatory agency, and is established under Section 5 (a)(1) of the original OSH Act. It requires that every employer “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”
The GDC is still a frequent citation today, and many people misunderstanding its use. OSHA has issued clarifications over the years in various letters of interpretation, including one from 2003 laying out the necessary elements for OSHA to issue a violation under the GDC. These are:
- The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees of that employer were exposed;
- The hazard was recognized;
- The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and
- There was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard.
The same LOI clarifies that OSHA would only invoke the GDC in cases where no OSHA standard exists to address workplace hazards. Ergonomics is a good example of that. There is currently no OSHA ergonomics standard, despite the brief existence of one about 20 years ago. However, the potential for ergonomics-related injuries such as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) could certainly meet the four criteria referenced above, and result in a violation. In an FAQ, OSHA states that they may use the GDC to cite employers for ergonomics hazards and address MSDS-related issues in complaints, referrals and targeted inspections.
To sum up, the GDC has historically been important because it ultimately empowers OSHA to enforce workplace safety even in the absence of a relevant standard. This helps ensure that employers are motivated to identify and correct hazards and provide their employees with a safe workplace.
Injury and Illness Recordkeeping
Of course, OSHA has also issued many specific standards over the years. The Injury and Illness Recordkeeping Rule is one of the Agency’s earliest rulemakings, published way back in 1971 shortly after the establishment of the Agency.
The Recordkeeping Rule was a priority for OSHA for a simple reason — without workplace injury and illness data, it’s impossible for OSHA to know where to concentrate their efforts in terms of developing new regulatory standards, or evaluating their effectiveness. Prior to OSHA, there were few reliable studies and no formally established criteria for determining rates of workplace injuries and illnesses in the U.S. However, in 1970 it is estimated that around 14,000 workers were killed on the job.
The Recordkeeping Rule requires employers who employ 11 or more workers within a calendar year, and who are not otherwise partially exempt, to maintain OSHA injury and illness recordkeeping forms 300, 301, and 300A. If a company is subject to the Recordkeeping Rule, it must maintain records for every individual establishment or geographical location where it conducts business.
A company can be partially exempt from Recordkeeping obligations if they have 10 or fewer employees, or are in a lower risk industry sector. No business covered under the OSH Act is ever entirely off the hook when it comes to recordkeeping. They would still need to maintain records upon request by either OSHA or the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and all OSH Act covered businesses need to report serious workplace injuries and illnesses directly to OSHA, including:
- Work-related fatalities must be reported within 8 hours
- In-patient hospitalizations must be reported within 24 hours
- Workplace incidents involving amputations or loss of eye must be reported within 24 hours
An employer can report these incidents by calling their local OSHA office, by using a toll-free number, or by reporting online, per instructions here.
Of course, OSHA needs to get injury and illness data from at least a subset of employers to get the information required to do their job effectively. Before 2016, the only methods the Agency had for acquiring that information were the OSHA Data Initiative (ODI) or the BLS Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOII). You’d remember if you ever had to complete these, because there would have been a large envelope bulging out of your mailbox and it would’ve taken quite some time to work through the whole survey. But therein was the problem – completing this information request is not a very efficient process, either for the employer or for OSHA, who’d need to do work on their end to get the data in usable form.
Considerations like these led OSHA to issue a new rulemaking in 2016, bearing the very literal title of “Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses.” The rule requires certain establishments subject to the Recordkeeping Standard to submit electronic 300A injury and illness summary data directly to OSHA via the Injury Tracking Application (ITA).
As we discussed in our Intro to HazCom series, working with chemicals prior to OSHA’s Hicom Standard was, in a word, dangerous. With no requirements for manufacturers to provide documents describing hazard information with shipments, and no requirement for employers to communicate hazards to their employees, many workers often had no idea what chemicals they were working with, and no knowledge of safe storage and handling practices. Illnesses and injuries from chemical exposure were common.
Responding to concerns about chemical exposure, OSHA first issued the HazCom Standard in 1983, applying it only to the manufacturing sector. They expanded applicability to all industry in 1987, and further revised the standard in 1994. The biggest change came in 2012, when OSHA revised the standard to align with Revision 3 of the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, or GHS.
The GHS alignment addressed some of the problems stakeholders had noted, including the wide variability in formatting of manufacturer supplied material safety data sheets (MSDSs), and the many different hazard pictograms used on shipped container labels. Under the GHS-aligned HazCom 2012 standard, manufacturers of chemicals must provide a GHS-aligned safety data sheet (SDS) to their downstream users, and must label the immediate shipped containers of their chemical products with a shipped label containing six required hazard communication elements.
Employers who receive the hazard information with shipments of chemicals must use it in turn to protect the safety of their workforce. The HazCom standard gives employers five main responsibilities:
- A Written Hazard Communication Plan
This is your “playbook” for managing HazCom at your site, and describes the details of your specific workplace chemical hazards, your storage practices, your system for managing container labels and your training programs. You also need to make sure this written plan is accessible to all of your employees, and that they know where to find it.
- Chemical Inventory List
Just like the name implies, this is a list of all of the current chemical products in your workplace for which you are required to maintain SDSs.
- Proper Labels and Warnings
Employers must ensure that shipped labels on incoming containers are not removed or defaced. OSHA also requires employers to make sure that secondary, or workplace containers are labeled, and that the system for labeling and communicating the hazards of chemicals in these containers is described in the HazCom Plan, and known to employees.
- SDSs and Right-to-Know Access
Employers must maintain SDS for hazardous chemicals provided by the manufacturer, and must provide their workforce with access to these documents within their work shifts, with no barriers to access.
You need to provide HazCom training to your workforce covering the requirements of the HazCom Standard, the formats and content of SDSs and labels, and specific details related to chemical hazards and HazCom management in your workplace. You also need to verify that workers have understood their training.
For more discussion of HazCom, check out our Intro to HazCom blog series, or our GHS/HazCom webinar.
Select Survey of Other Standards
If we were to take a detailed look at all of OSHA’s other standards, we’d risk making this blog as long as an OSHA regulation. So, let’s just take a quick survey of some of the agency’s more significant standards:
- Machine guarding 1910 Subpart O, 1910.212-219 (and other standards for specific equipment and industries) – Requires employers to protect workers from hazards of machinery, including points of contact, pinch points, rotating parts, flying chips and sparks.
- Control of Hazardous Energy (Lockout Tagout) 1910.147 – Requires employers to have procedures in place to safeguard workers from release of hazardous energy, and to properly train employees in the procedures, including use of energy control devices and tags.
- Permit-Required Confined Spaces 1910.146, 1926.1200 – Requires employers to establish procedures for entry of certain confined spaces in the workplace, such those containing a hazardous atmosphere or material with the potential to engulf an entrant, those with walls that converge inward or floors that slope downward and taper into a smaller area which could trap or asphyxiate an entrant, or those with any other recognized safety or health hazard. The construction industry standard became effective in August 2015.
- Air Contaminants 1910.1000 – Requires employers to limit employee exposures to specific listed air contaminants to concentrations below established occupational exposure limits such as the Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL). The practice of industrial hygiene addresses stressors in the workplace, including sampling for airborne contaminants to ensure concentrations are below the OELs.
- Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard – OSHA issued separate 2016 final rules covering general industry and construction. The rules establish a new lower PEL of 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, and also establish various employer responsibilities including exposure assessments, medical surveillance for certain employees, and training. For more information about silica requirements, check out our on-demand webinar.
Outreach and Education
OSHA’s activities are certainly not limited to rulemaking and enforcement. They also have a mission to educate, and over the decades, they’ve built up a deep library of resources that are very useful to EHS professionals, employees and anyone interested in workplace safety.
Please allow me to highlight just a couple of my personal favorites.
OSHA’s Recordkeeping Standard can be very challenging to apply when trying to determine if a specific injury or illness is recordable, especially considering all of the exemptions and special cases. Anyone tasked with investigating and documenting workplace injuries and illnesses will benefit from OSHA’s Recordkeeping Q & A Search page, which allows you to enter a keyword, such as (for example) “commute,” which then produces answers drawn from either the regulation itself or from information requests submitted to OSHA.
During my time as a Global EHS Coordinator, I came to realize that there are, quite frankly, a lot of training requirements scattered across various OSHA standards. That’s why I was happy to find that OSHA had compiled them all in one handy document, appropriately titled “Training Requirements in OSHA Standards.” This is a great resource for anyone responsible for overseeing safety training requirements in the US, with detailed discussion of standards containing training requirements and the specific information to be included in training.
In its role as a public educator, OSHA continues to adapt to current needs and challenges, as evidenced by its COVID-19 resource page. Here, you’ll find all of OSHA’s guidance and resources related to the current pandemic, including links to relevant OSHA standards and OSHA’s guidance document to help prepare workplaces for COVID-19.
Safety has come a long way since the days that those people I met long ago were injured on the job. Not all of that progress has come directly because of OSHA. Some has undoubtedly come from improvements in equipment and processes, and from reliance on progressive global safety standards like the recently published ISO 45001. But whether it’s GHS, ISO or other global consensus standards, OSHA has always had an important part to play as a stakeholder in conversations about safety.
The progress has been real, but problems remain. According to the BLS’s National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2018, there were 5,250 fatal workplace injuries in 2018, an increase of 2% relative to the 2017 total. Even when adjusted for increased number of workers by expressed as a rate in terms of 100,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) workers, we can see from the chart within the document linked above that the fatality rate is currently higher than it was in 2013. Clearly, there are some gaps in our ability to recognize and control risks, even the most serious kinds of risks.
There is still a lot of work to do, and a long road ahead. But you can be sure that OSHA, in all of its roles, will continue to have a prominent role in that work and in the future of workplace safety.
Let VelocityEHS Help!
Here at VelocityEHS, we celebrate the continuing progress of workplace safety, and want to be as helpful as we can be EHS professionals like you. Check out our EHS software platform, which gives you SDS/chemical management tools to comply with HazCom requirements as well as conduct important EHS tasks relevant to many areas of safety management, such as audits & inspections, incident management, risk management, training management, and corrective actions.
As always, please feel free to contact us anytime to learn more about how we can help you.