OSHA Q & A: Interesting Facts about OSHA

By David H. Glabe, P.E. / April 25, 2012

It’s amazing how many people have very little understanding about the US federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration, OSHA, especially since it has been in existence for almost a half century.  I suspect there are people who still think it’s a town in Wisconsin!  Well, here are some questions, with answers, that might expand, or at least confirm, what you know about OSHA.

When did OSHA become an agency of the US federal government?

A long time ago — 41 years ago.  The Occupational Safety & Health Act was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on December 29, 1970.  This initiated the process that would establish what we know today as the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

OSHA is part of which governmental department?

OSHA is part of the Department of Labor.

What is OSHA supposed to be doing?

The US Congress determined that too many employees were getting seriously injured and killed while on the job.  So Congress did what they are good at: they passed an act that said employers shouldn’t be killing and maiming employees.  The act became a law when President Nixon signed it.  It’s OSHA’s job to enforce the standards under the assumption that compliance with the standards will result in a safe workplace.

What’s in the Occupational Safety and Health Act?

All sorts of stuff.  The main items can be found in Section 5, parts (a) and (b).  Section 5(a)(1) requires that employers shall provide 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/her employees.  Section 5(a)(2) requires that employers shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under the Act.  Section 5(b) specifies that each employee shall comply with occupational safety and health standards and all rules, regulations, and orders issued pursuant to the Act which are applicable to his/her own actions and conduct.  That means as employees, we have to comply with the standards whether we like it or not!

What defines a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards?

The standards that have been promulgated under the act define a safe workplace.

Where did the original standards come from; did someone just make them up?

While it may seem that someone just made them up, the original OSHA standards were derived from existing standards such as the American National Safety Institute, ANSI, standards.  For example, the ANSI A10.8 scaffold standards were used to help develop the scaffold standards.

Do I, as an employee, have to comply with OSHA standards?

Of course you do.  It’s in your best interest and it is required by law.

Why does it seem that employers get cited for violations but employees never do?

Well it certainly isn’t because employees always comply with the standards.  OSHA has determined that it is more effective to go after the employer.  Besides employers are in a better position to pay the fine.

I own my own company and have no employees; does OSHA apply to me?

No.  OSHA only applies to employers and employees.  But don’t get the ingenious idea that you can do whatever you want.  If you are working as a subcontractor under another contractor, it is very likely that you will have to agree to abide by the OSHA standards if you want to do any work.  Besides, you will be affected by the OSHA Multi-employer Worksite Policy.

What the heck is the OSHA Multi-employer Worksite Policy?

It is a policy devised by OSHA to extend the reach of the agency in an attempt to improve safety at the worksite.  (Some folks say that is an overreach of OSHA authority and thus illegal.)  Simply stated, the Multi-employer worksite policy describes the obligations of four categories of employers; first, there is the controlling employer; second, there is the exposing employer; third is the creating employer; fourth there is the correcting employer.  You can obtain more detailed information by going to www.osha.gov, clicking on enforcement, and searching for Multi-employer worksite policy.

Is it easy to change or revise the OSHA standards?

Heck no!  It is a very complex, deliberative process.  And it is meant to be that way.  OSHA cannot arbitrarily change standards any more than you or I.  OSHA, as with other governmental agencies, first develop revised standards, then present them for public input and comment, revise them as necessary, verify the new standards agree with the other standards, confirm that they address hazards appropriately and then finally issue them.  For the revised scaffold standard that went into effect in November, 1996, it was more than a twenty year process.

Is OSHA the authority on scaffolding?

I don’t think so.  They are experts on regulations, the law, and can be experts on the enforcement of the standards.  But it is typically the citizens involved with scaffolding work that are the experts in scaffolding.  That is not to say that OSHA doesn’t have expertise to help develop, write and create standards and other information for employers and employees.  OSHA is a vital link in the chain of knowledge that includes many individuals, companies and organizations with varying areas of expertise that make successful standards.  No single organization or individual has the wealth of knowledge to single-handedly write meaningful standards.

Are OSHA compliance officers trained?

Yes, but based on my experience, nowhere near the level they should be.  This is not a criticism of the individual officer but of the agency.  There is insufficient funding for the knowledge and training that we expect of OSHA compliance officers.  That is why it is so important that we offer our assistance to OSHA to help them understand the business of scaffolding.

Tags: OSHA Standards & Regulations Resources

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