Occupational Safety and Health Act
The United States Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 to ensure that work environments are safe and free of dangerous hazards for both employees and their employers.
When the Act was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon on December 29, 1970, it called for the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the regulating governmental body that inspects workplaces for unsafe and unhealthy conditions. The first standards were adopted by OSHA in 1971. The Act also created the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a federal agency under the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that researches work-related injuries and workplace hazards. NIOSH also is charged with making recommendations on how to prevent accidents in the workplace and, at the request of business owners or its employees, investigates businesses where hazards may exist. The agency is the clearinghouse for dissemination of workplace safety information and trains occupational safety and health professionals. NIOSH follows the National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA), a research agenda developed by 500 organizations that outlines the top 21 research priorities among workplace safety issues.
The law applies to all employers and employees in the United States, District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and any other jurisdiction of the U.S. federal government. The law is not enforceable among federal or state employees, or farms where only immediate family members are employed. Those who are self-employed or whose workplaces are covered under other federal regulations, such as nuclear energy, mining, or nuclear weapons manufacturing, also are exempt from the Act.
Employers covered by the law are required to implement proper policies and procedures within their businesses that comply with the regulations. Regulations cover, but are not limited to, hazardous waste handling, fall protection at construction sites, asbestos, ergonomics, and respiratory protection. States have the option of enforcing the federal regulations or adopting their own job safety programs that are at least as strict as the OSHA regulations. In 1972, South Carolina, Montana, and Oregon were the first states to approve their own programs.
Employees who work in environments covered by the Act have certain rights under the law. Employees are permitted to file complaints with OSHA regarding the safety conditions of their workplaces. Complaints are kept confidential from employers. In order to enforce the Act, OSHA employs compliance safety and health officers (CSHOs) that are authorized to perform inspections of workplaces that are covered under the law. OSHA conducts two kinds of inspections, programmed and unprogrammed. Unprogrammed inspections are triggered when a fatality or catastrophe occurs, or if a complaint is filed.
A violation of an OSHA standard covered under the Act carry several penalties depending on the severity of the violation. Violations are classified as other than serious, serious, willful, or repeated.
Other-than-serious violation. An other-than-serious violation directly affects job safety, but likely would not cause serious injury or death. It is within the CSHO's discretion to impose up to a $7,000 penalty for each violation. However, if the business owner shows a good-faith effort to make the appropriate corrections to comply with the law, the $7,000 penalty can be reduced by up to 95%. The size of the business and whether there have been previous violations also are taken into consideration when reducing a penalty.
Serious violation. A serious violation occurs when it is likely that serious injury or death could occur because of a violation of an OSHA standard that the employer knew or should have known was harmful or hazardous. In cases of serious violations, up to a $7,000 penalty can be imposed. But, again, the penalty can be decreased on the basis of previous violations, how serious the violation, good-faith effort to correct the problem, and the size of the business.
Willful violation. An employer willfully commits a violation when he or she is aware the violation exists. Either the employer knows a violation is being committed or does not try to eliminate a dangerous condition that exists. An employer who commits a willful violation faces a penalty of at least $5,000 and not more than $70,000. The only considerations taken into account when decreasing the penalty for a willful violation is the number of previous violations and the size of the business. If a death has occurred as a result of a willful violation, an employer could face up to six months of prison and/or a fine imposed by the courts. If criminal charges are levied and a conviction results, the employer's corporation could face a $500,000 fine and the individual a $250,000 fine, enforceable under the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984.
Repeated violation. If upon reinspection by OSHA officers a similar violation is found, a $70,000 penalty may be imposed.
Other violations. Once a violation is found, and a deadline imposed as to when the violation must be corrected, employers could face a $7,000 penalty for every day the problem goes uncorrected. Additionally, employers found doctoring records or applications could face a fine of up to $10,000 and/or six months in prison. Any kind of interference with an OSHA compliance officer who is attempting to perform an inspection, whether it be by resisting or intimidating the officer, is considered a crime and could carry up to a $250,000 penalty for an individual and $500,000 for a corporation.
Ergonomics—The study of the relationship between people and their working environment.
Musculoskeletal disorder—Injuries that affect the muscles and skeleton, such as repetitive stress injuries to the hand and wrist.
One of the most controversial OSHA standards debated in Congress was the Ergonomics Rule issued by the agency in November 2000. The measure, which would have applied to 1.6 million employers in the United States, aimed to prevent nearly a half million musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in more than 102 million workers in the country's workplaces. The proposed standard would have affected manual handling, manufacturing, and occupational job sites where MSDs are reported. Employers would have been required to implement ergonomics programs that would decrease the risk of MSDs. However, many employers, particularly owners of small businesses, claimed the measure would be far too costly. OSHA reported that compliance with the regulation would cost businesses $4 billion a year, but would be offset by eliminating the estimated $20 billion a year spent on lost wages and medical costs of those absent from work because of MSDs and other workplace injuries. The National Coalition on Ergonomics (NCE), one of OSHA's staunchest opponents, estimated costs at $26 billion a year for businesses.
After the 2000 election in which George W. Bush was elected President, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate voted to overturn the rule. Those voting to overturn the rule were most concerned about the cost of implementation, and the lack of sound scientific grounding for the standard. The U.S. Department of Labor began drafting a new ergonomics rule in early 2001.
When OSHA first proposed a new ergonomics rule, officials turned to occupational therapists because the discipline is the most appropriate in dealing with the application of workplace safety regulations. The American Occupational Therapy Association identified ergonomics and workplace safety consulting as a major emerging job market at the turn of the new millennium. Occupational therapists have a strong background in basic health education, physiology, and anatomy. Applying those skills in the workplace setting makes
Dell Orto, Arthur E. and Robert P. Marinelli, eds. Encyclopedia of Disability and Rehabilitation. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1995.
Gourley, Meghan. "Refining OT's Edge in Ergonomics." OT Practice (11 September 2000): 14–17.
The American Occupational Therapy Association. 4720 Montgomery Lane, Bethesda, MD 20824-1220. (301) 652-2682. <http://www.aota.org>.
The Centers for Disease Control, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 200 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20201. (800) 356-4674. <http://www.cdc.gov/niosh>.
The Environmental Protection Agency. Ariel Building, 1200 Pennsylvania, NW, Washington, DC 20210. (202) 260-2090. <http://www.epa.gov>.
National Coalition on Ergonomics. 1615 H Street, NW, Washington, DC 20062. (202) 293-3384. <http://www.ncergo.org>.
The U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 200 Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20210. (202) 693-4650. <http://www.osha.gov>.
Meghan M. Gourley