Safety and Health

The Occupational Safety and Health Act is a federal law requiring private-sector employers to keep their workplaces free from hazards that threaten employee safety and health. With it came three new agencies: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC), and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

OSHA has overall responsibility for administering and enforcing the OSH Act. OSHA establishes safety standards, conducts inspections, and provides information to employers and employees about workplace safety and health issues. The OSHRC is independent from OSHA and hears appeals of its enforcement actions. NIOSH provides scientific and technical support to OSHA, helping it to identify hazards and develop appropriate standards. When requested, NIOSH visits workplaces and conducts health hazard evaluations.

The OSH Act protects most private-sector employees but not government employees (at least not directly). The act allows states that prefer to issue and enforce their own safety and health standards to do so, as long as the state programs are certified by OSHA as being at least as effective as the federal program. Another condition for OSHA certification of state plans is that state and local government employees also be covered. About half the states are state plan states.

When the OSH Act runs up against other federal laws affecting the safety and health of private-sector employees (e.g., laws regulating transportation, nuclear plants), OSHA is generally prohibited from exercising its jurisdiction. The OSH Act is aimed at eliminating, or at least lessening, safety and health hazards in the workplace. Unsafe conditions violate the law even if they have not (yet) resulted in injury, illness, or death. The latter might prompt enforcement activities or affect penalties, but unsafe conditions by themselves violate the OSH Act.
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