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OSHA: Ensuring Workplace Safety

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  • 0:06 Accidents at Work
  • 2:18 OSH Act
  • 3:12 OSHA Standards
  • 4:55 OSHA Laws
  • 6:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act was enacted in 1970 and created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA. This lesson discusses the role of OSHA in ensuring workplace safety.

Accidents at Work

Dawn Brancheau worked as a whale trainer at SeaWorld Orlando. She was on-duty when she was pulled into a tank and drowned by a 20-foot-long killer whale named Tilikum. Tilikum had unfortunately been responsible for a previous trainer's death as well. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, is an organization responsible for ensuring safe and healthy work environments at businesses and worksites throughout the U.S. Because Brancheau was killed at work, OSHA investigated Brancheau's death.

OSHA issued three violations for SeaWorld and fined the park $75,000. OSHA cited SeaWorld for not properly protecting their trainers during performances and for relying too heavily on the trainers' own safety skills rather than taking more proactive safety measures. In a hearing, SeaWorld's own animal training expert testified that whale trainers sign a document acknowledging that the trainers are largely responsible for their own workplace safety by using their own skills and training. OSHA thought this wasn't good enough. OSHA felt that SeaWorld should be responsible for each individual trainer's health and safety in the same way other employers are responsible for each individual employee's health and safety.

OSHA's citations recommended placing a physical barrier between trainers and Tilikum since he was known to be aggressive. OSHA also recommended placing a physical barrier between trainers and any other killer whales. OSHA additionally cited SeaWorld for not having a railing on certain stairways used by trainers during shows. SeaWorld appealed the violations but lost. As of late 2013, SeaWorld has not yet corrected all of the OSHA violations.

OSH Act

According to OSHA's own statistics, approximately a dozen workers are killed on the job each day. OSHA's mission is to guide and assist employers and employees in reducing job injuries, illnesses, and deaths. OSHA operates as a part of the U.S. Department of Labor. It was created through the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which is commonly referred to as the 'OSH Act.' The general goal of the act was to bring increased productivity to the workplace while reducing workers' compensation insurance and other employer costs. But the act has been praised as a greater success. Since 1970, work fatalities have decreased by 65% and work injuries and illnesses have decreased by more than 67%.

OSHA Standards

The OSH Act establishes several regulations, or OSHA standards, that are rules enforced by OSHA. In general, businesses are required to:

  • Maintain conditions or implement the appropriate practices that are necessary to protect workers on the job
  • Be familiar and comply with the standards that apply to their businesses
  • Ensure that employees have and use any required personal protective equipment
  • Furnish a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees

Most all businesses must follow these standards. SeaWorld was required to follow these standards, but you can see that SeaWorld failed to protect workers and to fix recognized hazards. The OSH Act covers the vast majority of businesses either directly, through federal OSHA, or through an OSHA-approved state program. Under the OSH Act, states are required to set job safety and health standards through an OSHA-approved program. These standards must be at least as effective as the federal standards.

Though the OSH Act reaches most businesses, it specifically doesn't cover:

  • Self-employed
  • Family farms that don't have outside workers
  • Federal agencies that have their own worker safety programs
  • State or local government employees, though some have their own safety programs

OSHA Laws

Individual OSHA laws are passed in order to enforce particular standards to individual businesses and practices. OSHA laws include items like strict instructions on safe handling and cleanup of chemicals that are harmful to a person's health. And though OSHA laws are extensive, they don't cover every workplace situation. There weren't any specific OSHA laws in place to cover the SeaWorld incident. Instead, OSHA investigated that incident under the general standards that SeaWorld needed to implement appropriate practices necessary to protect its trainers and provide a workplace free from recognized hazards.

Also, note that OSHA laws don't only apply to dangerous situations. These laws apply to almost all types of businesses. Hardware stores must follow OSHA laws regarding the handling and disposal of paint. Even grocery stores must follow OSHA laws regarding heavy lifting and ergonomics. OSHA can fine, and sometimes even prosecute, businesses for violating OSHA laws.

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