What is occupational health and safety?

In 2018, over 5,000 people died in a workplace related incident, and workers in private industry reported 2.8 million injuries or illnesses in the same year. These figures remain largely unchanging but are still too high on the whole. Employers have a duty to keep their employees safe and enforce high standards of occupational health and safety. But what exactly is occupational health and safety?

Occupational health and safety – a definition

Occupational or workplace health and safety describes services and regulations put in place by employers as regulated by government agencies to ensure that employees can remain safe and healthy whilst working. In the US, a law was passed in 1970 called the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 which aimed to protect employees at work. Things listed as part of the act were protecting employees from exposure to toxic chemicals, excessive noise levels, mechanical dangers, heat or cold stress, and/or unsanitary conditions. The complete act can be found at the US Department of Labor’s website.


Occupational Safety and Health, often abbreviated to OSH, is enforced on a federal level in the USA, encompassing both private and public workplaces. The OSHA is part of the US Department of Labor, and states on its website that: “OSHA's mission is to ensure that employees work in a safe and healthful environment by setting and enforcing standards, and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.”

What are the occupational health and safety regulations in the USA?

To fully understand the regulations for workplace health and safety, you will need to check the specifications for your industry as well as the federal and local laws which control these regulations. An overview of the regulations is freely available at on the OSHA website – the most essential information can be looked up online in OSHA standard 29 CFR Part 1910. However, some of the most common violations of the occupational health and safety regulations show what they are, as well as which ones employers often miss, but really shouldn’t.

A list from Health and Safety Magazine shows that the highest violation of the OSHA is fall protection, both in terms of generally implementing workplace health and safety when it comes to fall protection, and also when it comes to training employees in fall protection. The combined total of violations for fall protection alone comes to 7,783 incidents. This is far too high, especially considering how many injuries a year occur at the workplace.

The full list from the Fiscal Year 2019 shows that a lot of the violations occurred in workplaces where physical work is the norm, although hazard communication could occur in any workplace:

  1. Fall Protection – General Requirements 6,010 violations
  2. Hazard Communication:3,671
  3. Scaffolding :2,813
  4. Lockout/Tagout: 2,606
  5. Respiratory Protection: 2,450
  6. Ladders: 2,345
  7. Powered Industrial Trucks: 2,093
  8. Fall Protection – Training Requirements: 1,773
  9. Machine Guarding: 1,743
  10. Personal Protective and Lifesaving Equipment – Eye and Face Protection: 1,411

It is important to note that the OSHA only covers the private sector, and that there are some exemptions to where it applies. Those who are self-employed or are covered under other federal programs are exempt as well as public employees for state and local governments. That is not to say that these workplaces are not protected, or even dangerous, though. Often these workplaces will have their own form of worker occupational health and safety schemes.

Who needs to comply with occupational health and safety regulations?

As mentioned above, there are some exemptions when it comes to OSHA’s coverage. However, it is generally understood that all private employers must comply with OSHA’s regulations in the same way as they do other statutory requirements. Not doing so can result in heavy consequences, which we will go into later. Even though federal institutions are exempt from the 1970’s health and safety law, the Presidential Executive Order 12196 means that these institutions must meet inspection requirements for federal OSH schemes. Employees employed by the state should therefore also be covered by occupational health and safety protection.

What happens if these regulations are breached?

As day-to-day work is always changing, there is no hard-and-fast rule or procedure which applies to any and every case if OSHA regulations are breached. Inspections are spontaneous, and inspectors may give an employer time to correct errors. However, if deemed appropriate, breaches may incur an on-the-spot $7,000 fine. Not something anyone takes lightly. This number is dwarfed if the violation is not corrected or deemed to be willful, however: The fine can be multiplied tenfold and reach a staggering $70,000 for a repeated violation.

However, fines are not the only thing on the table for those who violate OSHA’s protective health and safety laws. Those who endanger their employees can be faced with 6 months in jail, plus a $10,000 fine. If an employer has not learned from previous punishment, this sentence can be hiked to a year and a $20,000 fine. The take-away? Treat occupational safety with respect and comply, not only because it can land you in hot water if you don’t, but because the wellbeing of others is at stake, too.

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