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What is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration? - OSHA History

Instructor: Susan Fenner

Susan has an MBA in Management from the University of North Alabama. She teaches online and campus-based Business courses.

Have you ever wondered what role the government plays in ensuring a safe and healthy environment for workers in the United States? Let's take a look at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and how they are working to minimize workplace hazards.

Introduction to OSHA

On November 3, 2014, a New Jersey truck driver was killed when a one-pound tape measure dislodged from the belt of a construction worker and fell over 50 stories, striking him in the head. The victim was delivering drywall to a construction site and was not wearing a hard hat at the time of the accident. Three days later, an Ohio bowling alley maintenance worker was killed in a freak accident when his clothing became caught in a pin setter machine and the machine pulled him in and crushed him.

Besides the tragic and untimely death of two men, what do these accidents have in common? Because both incidents happened on the job, they were investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

OSHA Defined

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, commonly referred to as OSHA, is the United States Department of Labor agency responsible for ensuring safe and healthy working conditions for workers in the U.S. Congress established the agency under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The Act was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on December 29, 1970, and OSHA was officially established on April 28, 1971. Their stated mission is 'to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.' Most employees in the U.S. are covered under OSHA's jurisdiction, either directly through Federal OSHA or through an OSHA-approved state program.

OSHA isn't limited to investigating fatalities on the job. They also investigate incidents that result in non-fatal injuries and may levy fines or even prosecute employers if they find that they failed to provide safe working conditions. You may have heard about the grisly accident at the Ringling Brothers Circus in Rhode Island. A support frame for an aerial act broke and sent several acrobats plunging to the ground. Nine workers were seriously injured, including one already on the ground. OSHA investigated the incident and found the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus negligent. They assessed a fine of $7,000, citing a failure to properly install the necessary equipment.

In addition to accident investigation, OSHA developed a broad range of statutes to protect workers, beginning with their very first standard, issued in 1972, that limits workplace exposure to asbestos. Other important standards followed, for example: Construction Safety Standards (1972), 14 Carcinogen Standards (1974), Lead Standard (1978), Farmworkers Standard (1987), Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard (1989), and Bloodborne Pathogens Standard (1991), just to name a few.

General Duty Clause

Because it would be impossible to create specific standards for every possible workplace safety situation, the United States Occupational Safety and Health Act includes the General Duty Clause. Any hazard not specifically covered by a specific standard can be cited under the clause, which reads in part: 'Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.'

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