The Laws Governing Workplace Safety

The Occupational Safety and Health Act | Its Application in the Workplace

Workplace SafetyAccording to data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 3 million people were hurt in the workplace in 2020, and more than 4,700 workers lost their lives in workplace accidents. Recognizing the dangers that many employees face on the job, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, providing basic protections to workers in all kinds of jobs.

National Workplace Injury and Illness Data

Statistics gathered by the Department of Labor show that more than 2.7 million workers sought medical treatment in 2020 for injury or illness, down from nearly 2.9 million in 2019. Reported injuries dropped more than 20% in 2020, from 2.7 million to 2.1 million, but illness increased from approximately 140,000 to more than 544,000. Both changes are attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw fewer workers on site but at greater risk of infection.

Fatal injuries in the workplace also declined in 2020, from more than 5,300 to less than 4,800.

Workplace Safety in America—A History

Because the birth of the United States coincides with the heart of the industrial revolution, workplace safety has been an issue throughout the country’s history. Many early efforts to promote worker safety came about because of the efforts of trade unions and the labor movement. Workers in a number of industries took collective action, demanding better working conditions and imposing work stoppages to get legislators to enact protective measures.

Other historic events led to the enactment of federal laws protecting the safety of workers:

  • In 1911, initial efforts to put federal protections in place gathered momentum after 146 workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City died in a fire caused by unsafe working conditions.
  • During the First World War, Congress created the Working Conditions Service, a federal agency that inspected manufacturing and industrial facilities and sought to eliminate workplace hazards.
  • Many of the laws passed as part of the New Deal in the 1930s gave federal agencies more authority to manage workplace safety, but not all industries were covered under the statutes, and the role of the federal agencies was primarily to provide information to state agencies tasked with promoting worker safety.
  • Studies done by the Department of Labor in the 1960s found that as many as 14,000 workers died and more than two million were out of work every year because of job-related injury or illness
  • In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, imposing legal responsibilities on employers nationwide to take certain steps to promote worker safety.

What Is the Occupational Safety and Health Act?

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) is a federal statute that applies to employers in the private sectors in all states and territories of the United States. OSH Act mandates that qualified employers maintain work environments that are free of specific hazards, including toxic chemicals, mechanical dangers, excessive heat or cold, dangerous noise levels, and certain unsanitary conditions. OSH Act also authorized the creation of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), the federal agency tasked with establishing, monitoring and enforcing workplace safety regulations and procedures.

OSH Act applies to employers across industries, with exemptions only for:

  • Persons who are self-employed;
  • Immediate family members who farm and who do not hire outside workers;
  • Public employees of local and state governments, who are typically covered by other workplace safety laws; and
  • Employees covered under other federal programs, such as railroad workers, miners, and truck drivers.

What Are an Employer’s Duties Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act?

The Occupational Safety and Health Act imposes a number of requirements on employers:

  • They must comply with all regulations and standards set forth by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), ensuring that workers have a work environment free of recognized hazards.
  • They must keep records of all deaths, injuries, or illnesses occurring in the workplace. A workplace fatality must be reported to OSHA within eight hours of the time of death, and any hospitalization, amputation, or eye loss must be reported within 24 hours.
  • They must provide training to workers as established by OSHA.
  • They may not discriminate against workers who file claims or otherwise exercise their rights under the law.
  • They must provide and pay for any reasonable and necessary personal protective equipment for employees.
  • They must provide medical examinations as mandated by OSHA regulations and allow workers access to medical records and exposure data.
  • They must post notice of any violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, as well as documentation verifying abatement of any hazardous conditions.

How Are OSHA Regulations Enforced?

OSHA has enforcement authority, which can be exercised in two primary ways:

  • OSHA may respond to complaints filed by workers. In such situations, OSHA typically conducts an investigation and may impose sanctions on employers based on how the violation is categorized.
  • OSHA may conduct an inspection of a facility, based on knowledge of safety hazards in other businesses within that industry. The inspections are customarily made without any advance notice. The law makes it a criminal offense for anyone to give advance notice to an employer about an impending OSHA inspection.

What Are the Different Types of OSHA Violations?

OSHA violations fall into four different categories:

  • Serious violations—These include situations where a hazard exists that is likely to cause death or serious injury, and where the employer knew or should have known about the hazard. These types of violations carry a mandatory fine of up to $7,000 per hazard.
  • Other-than-serious violations—These violations are deemed to have a direct and negative impact on safety or health but not likely to cause serious injury or death. They can also lead to a fine of up to $7,000.
  • Willful violations—These are violations that an employer knowingly or intentionally engages in or commits with a clear indifference to the law. They lead to a minimum penalty of $5,000 per incident but can lead to fines as high as $70,000 per hazard.
  • Repeated violations—These are violations that are the same or similar to prior violations. Penalties can be up to $70,000 per repeated violation.

Workplace Safety Tips Every Worker Should Know

Though the Occupational Safety and Health Act does not impose duties on workers, there are steps that every employee can take to maximize workplace safety:

  • Ensure that you know how to use all tools and machines safely.
  • Take the time to learn the safety measures and plans in effect at your workplace.
  • Be aware of your surroundings and of anything that may pose a risk of injury or illness.
  • Take regular breaks, so that you don’t suffer injuries because of fatigue.
  • Know where the emergency exits are.
  • Make certain your supervisor is aware of any potentially dangerous or unsafe conditions.
  • Be willing to say no when your employer asks you to do something that you believe is unsafe.


The Occupational Safety and Health Act, a federal statute, requires most private employers to take steps to ensure a safe and hazard-free work environment. Your employer must provide, at no cost to you, any reasonable and necessary personal protective equipment. You have the right to notify OSHA of any perceived violations of workplace safety laws, and your employer cannot take actions in retaliation for your exercising that right.

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