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OSHA Standards: A Guide to Health and Safety Compliance

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Published March 26th, 2020

What are OSHA standards?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets and enforces standards to assure safe and healthy working conditions for working men and women. OSHA standards are a set of laws and regulations organized into five categories: General Industry, Maritime, Construction, Agriculture, and Federal Employee Programs. Adherence to OSHA standards protects workers from deadly safety hazards and health risks at work. Here are 5 simple steps that will help your organization easily comply with OSHA standards:

History of OSHA

In the 1960s, The United States experienced a turbulent increase in work-related injuries and illnesses; resulting in 14,000 workers dying on the job each year. US Senator Harrison A. Williams Jr. and House Representative William A. Steiger pushed for prompt action to curb the alarming statistics. 

“The knowledge that the industrial accident situation is deteriorating, rather than improving, underscores the need for action now.” – US Senator Harrison A. Williams Jr.

On December 29, 1970, then US President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 which spawned three different agencies, each focused on a different aspect of health and safety in the workplace:

OSHA

Officially established on April 28, 1971, OSHA became the first nationwide regulating body in the United States tasked with setting and enforcing workplace safety standards for the benefit of private-sector and government workers.

NIOSH

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, also known as NIOSH, is tasked with doing research to advance occupational safety and health. NIOSH works in tandem with OSHA to provide new information that will positively influence and improve OSHA standards.

OSHRC

The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission or OSHRC is the agency in charge of mediating cases wherein an employer is in conflict with OSHA rulings and facing employee complaints.

A month after OSHA became official, they released their first standards for safety and health in the workplace, including guidelines on how to protect workers from excessive noise, cotton dust, and asbestos, as well as acceptable exposure limits for more than 400 toxic substances.

Expansion in the 1980s

After initially focusing on common occupational health and safety hazards, OSHA started working on a more holistic approach to workplace safety and health beginning in the 1980s by starting education, training, and consultation programs outside of standard enforcement. Additionally, OSHA added the following to their growing list of initiatives during this period:

  • Started requiring employers to give employees access to medical and exposure records within the company for transparency;
  • pushed for better hazard communication between OSHA, private-sector employers, and their employees;
  • updated safety and handling protocols for working with asbestos, ethylene oxide, formaldehyde, and benzene;
  • published official fire protection and electrical safety protocols;
  • published official field sanitation protocols in agriculture;
  • published safety protocols for handling hazardous waste as well as emergency response protocols;
  • improved their “inspection targeting system” to focus on the most hazardous companies in the most hazardous industries; and
  • increased number of free OSHA consultations.

Continued Improvements in the 1990s

OSHA continued to find ways to fulfill its mission to assure worker safety through a variety of programs and initiatives during the 1990s. During this time, OSHA:

  • improved major safety standards covering safety management in workplaces, fall protection in construction, and enhanced electrical safety guidelines;
  • released a new standard covering bloodborne pathogens to address biological hazards;
  • improved PPE and Respiratory Protection Standards;
  • developed and published lead exposure limits and standards in construction;
  • published updated laboratory safety standards for employees who work with toxic chemicals;
  • issued guidelines for preventing workplace violence;
  • began actively collecting data from employers in high-risk and high-hazard industries in order to pinpoint and focus on sites with high injury and illness rates;
  • started the Site Specific Targeting Program which focused inspections on workplaces with the worst safety and health records; an initiative that lead to a significant decline in workplace injury and illness rates; and
  • officially launched the OSHA website.

2000s to Present Day

Firmly established as one of the leading authorities in workplace safety even outside of the United States, OSHA added key improvements to advance their efforts; most notably through strengthening their online presence, among other things:

  • Added the worker’s page to the OSHA website which gave concerned employees the option to file complaints online;
  • made website content more comprehensive to provide relevant safety information for both employers and employees;
  • teamed up with counterparts in the European Union to create a new website which caters to job safety and health issues relevant to countries outside of the US;
  • hired more compliance assistance specialists to provide safety training and seminars upon request;
  • completed and published work on an ergonomics standard for general industry;
  • published a steel erection standard to improve construction worker safety;
  • launched the OSHA National Emergency Plan which outlines agency policies during national emergencies;
  • updated and issued crane and derrick standards for use in logistics and construction;
  • updated construction standards for electric power generation, transmission, and distribution; and
  • updated Hazard Communication Standard to align with the UN’s Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals

Why Comply With OSHA Standards?

OSHA sets and enforces standards to assure safe and healthy working conditions for working men and women. Adherence to OSHA standards protects workers from deadly safety hazards and health risks at work. Here are 5 good reasons to comply with OSHA standards:

Develop an Effective Health and Safety Policy

Senior management should create a health and safety policy with clear objectives, indicating the basic health and safety philosophy of the organization. State the general responsibilities of all employees such as not sacrificing personal safety for expediency. As soon as the incumbent CEO signs the health and safety policy, it should be communicated to each employee and carried out with no exceptions. Environmental, health, and safety managers should update these guidelines when applicable OSHA standards change and integrate it with lessons learned from past incidents, new insights from recent training sessions, and more efficient SOPs.

Enable Frontline Workers to Respond Proactively

OSHA standards can be easily met when organizations empower frontline workers to mitigate health and safety risks at the onset. Before commencing work, site supervisors should regularly conduct an OSHA toolbox talk for workers to be aware or reminded of job hazards, best practices, and preventive measures.

EHS managers should implement a real-time incident reporting through mobile-ready OSHA 300 forms to identify leading indicators to safe performance. Establishing an adaptive work environment allows employees to take greater ownership of occupational health and safety for themselves and their co-workers.

Maximize Use of Cost-Effective Digital Tools

Proper recordkeeping and documentation of health and safety programs is critical in substantiating compliance with OSHA standards. Paper-based hazard assessments, safety inspections, and incident reports can be time-consuming and burdensome to use and manage. To easily comply with OSHA standards, EHS managers and frontline workers should take advantage of the world’s most powerful safety inspection software, iAuditor by SafetyCulture.

With iAuditor, you can capture photo evidence, assign corrective actions, automatically generate and share reports, store and secure data in the cloud, and track performance with real-time analytics. Providing a centralized health and safety management system builds a safety culture from the ground up and gives visibility on daily business operations.

Celebrate Wins to Boost Motivation

EHS managers should recognize safe and on-time performance to encourage safe behavior in the workplace. Facilitate peer-to-peer observations, provide informal feedback, and engage in follow-up discussions to further support safe behavior among employees. Consistent hazard prevention, prompt incident reporting, proactive responses to safety issues, and appropriate solutions to recurrent problems should also be rewarded.

Stay Updated by Consulting the OSHA Website Regularly

Maintaining compliance with OSHA standards entails the commitment of the organization, its management, and all employees to prioritize health and safety. Visit OSHA’s FAQs to keep up with releases/revisions of OSHA standards such as the final rule to improve tracking workplace injuries and illnesses, new training requirements, and compliance audit schedules.

OSHA Standards

An OSHA standard is a list of material and equipment requirements along with guidelines and instructions for employers to minimize employee risk in the performance of work. Below are some of the most frequently cited OSHA standards for 4 major industries:

General Industry

This section outlines OSHA’s occupational safety and health requirements covering businesses that do not fall strictly under the agriculture, construction, and maritime industries:

  • Employers must provide the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) to each employee where necessary. This includes respirators, safety glasses, face shields, earplugs, protective gloves, flame resistant clothing, etc. Failure to provide the appropriate PPEs may place the employer in violation of OSHA standards for each employee.
  • Employers must provide the appropriate safety training to employees either in-house or through third-party means, to adequately prepare them for hazards they may encounter at work. Failure to provide adequate safety training may place employer in violation of OSHA standards for each employee.
  • Employers must ensure that all areas used for work, including production floors, storage rooms, and walking surfaces, are kept clean, orderly, and sanitary.
  • Employers must ensure that all walking-working surfaces are strong enough to support the combined weight of workers, equipment, and machinery situated in the abovementioned area.
  • Employers must ensure that walking-working surfaces are free of hazards including sharp/protruding objects, loose floorboards, chemical leaks, spills, snow, and ice.
  • Employers must ensure that employees have access to safe entry and exit points to and from walking-working areas.
  • Employers must ensure that walking-working surfaces are inspected and maintained regularly and as necessary to preserve safe conditions.
  • Employers must ensure that hazardous walking-working areas are corrected or repaired before employees are allowed access said areas again. If correction or repair cannot be done immediately, access must be closed-off until necessary corrective measures have been taken.
  • Employers must provide portable fire extinguishers and ensure they are readily accessible to employees.
  • Employers are responsible for the inspection, maintenance, and testing of portable fire extinguishers.

Construction

This section talks about some of the most prominent employer responsibilities regarding the safety and health of employees in the construction industry as mandated by OSHA’s standards:

  • The employer must ensure that employees are adequately trained and experienced to operate equipment and machinery.
  • The employer must ensure that first aid services and medical provisions are available for all employees.
  • The employer must provide and require employees to wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) in all operations where hazardous conditions are present.
  • During the course of construction work, employers must ensure that harmful debris such as scrap lumber, protruding nails, and others are cleared from work areas, passageways, and stairs.
  • Employers must ensure that adequate illumination, whether natural or artificial, is available in walking-working areas where work is in progress.
  • Where there are harmful sound levels, employers must utilize feasible administrative and engineering measures. If such measures fail, employers must ensure that employees have access to PPEs which protect them from excessive noise exposure and harmful sound levels.
  • Employers must provide fall protection such as guardrails, safety nets, and safety harnesses to employees working at a height of six feet or more.
  • Employers are responsible for the development and consistent implementation of an effective fire protection and prevention program for the entire duration of construction, repair, alteration, and/or demolition work.
  • Employers must ensure that all electrical equipment used at the job site are safe and free from recognized hazards that may cause injury or death.
  • Employers must ensure that pressure vessels and boilers have current and valid certification from an insurance company or regulatory authority as evidence for safe installation, inspection, and testing.

Maritime

This section talks about some of the most prominent employer responsibilities regarding the safety and health of employees in the maritime industry as mandated by OSHA’s standards:

  • Employers must ensure that atmospheric testing is done for oxygen content, flammability, and toxicity, in that order.
  • Employers must ensure that the following spaces are inspected and tested by a qualified person to determine the atmosphere’s oxygen content before employees are allowed entry:
    – Sealed spaces, including but not limited to spaces that have been coated and non-ventilated spaces that have been freshly painted
    – Spaces that contain or previously contained flammable liquids and/or gases
    – Spaces that contain or previously contained corrosive liquids, gases, or solids
    – Spaces that have been fumigated
    – Spaces that contain materials or elements that reduce the oxygen in the atmosphere
  • Employers must ensure that all rooms determined to be oxygen-deficient or oxygen-enriched are labeled “Not Safe for Workers.”
  • Employers must ensure that the oxygen content for all rooms and spaces are within the range of 19.5 percent and 22.0 percent. All rooms and spaces whose oxygen content fall outside of the accepted range shall be labeled “Not Safe for Workers.”
  • Employers must ensure that each employee, as well as anyone who enters confined spaces and other dangerous atmospheres is properly trained to exit the space in instances where:
    – An authorized person orders an evacuation
    – An evacuation signal or alarm is activated
    – The person determines that he or she is in danger
  • The employer must establish a shipyard rescue team or hire a third-party rescue team ready to quickly respond to rescue requests:
    – Should an employer establish their own shipyard rescue team, each employee assigned to the team must receive adequate training to perform     his or her rescue duties which includes entry to confined areas as well as other areas with dangerous atmosphere.
    – Employers must ensure that shipyard rescue teams must practice their skills via practice drills every 12 months using equipment and facilities       that can effectively simulate a real rescue situation.
  • When a change made in a vessel could alter conditions in a confined space and introduce possible hazards, work in the affected space must be stopped and can only be resumed once safe status has been re-established through proper inspection and testing.

Agriculture

This section talks about some of the most prominent employer responsibilities regarding the safety and health of employees in the agriculture industry as mandated by OSHA’s standards:

  • Employers must ensure that each tractor used by employees for work has a working seatbelt sufficiently tightened to keep the worker confined in the safe area within the operator’s station.
  • Employers must ensure that batteries, fuel tanks, oil containers, and coolants are placed and sealed in an area where employees are protected from possible spillage.
  • Employers must ensure that the protective frames of wheel-type tractors used by employees have undergone and passed standard laboratory and field-upset tests to certify its effectiveness in preventing injury due to accidental upsets.
  • Employers must ensure that employees assigned to operate machinery are adequately trained in the safe operation and servicing of agricultural equipment including the minimum safe practices mentioned below:
    – Keep all guards in place during machine operation.
    – Permit no other riders on the equipment other than the operator and necessary personnel.
    – Stop the engine, disconnect it from the power source, and ensure that the machine has stopped completely before performing repairs or    cleaning, except in instances where the machine must be running to be properly serviced.
  • Employers must provide free clean drinking water to employees who work in the field:
    The water must be cool enough and sufficient considering the air temperature and humidity, as well as the nature of their work, to meet the needs of all field workers.

OSHA Functions

Cited primarily as the national authority in workplace safety, OSHA has multiple functions that lead to the achievement of its mission: a safe working environment for all workers.

Safety Enforcer

OSHA’s most prominent function is to ensure that employers and employees all over the United States comply with their safety standards. Failure to comply with OSHA’s standards can lead to hefty fines, legal consequences, and a tarnished reputation.

OSHA’s compliance safety and health officers visit workplaces and perform on-site inspections to identify and point out potential safety hazards to employers and employees. After the walkthrough, OSHA inspectors advise employers about the possible actions they can take to mitigate identified risks, including the time frame granted to eliminate identified hazards.

Safety Consultant

OSHA provides free safety consultations to employers upon request. Through this function, an OSHA consultant will perform a walkthrough inspection with the employer in order to identify workplace hazards, provide helpful suggestions on how to eliminate safety issues, and assist employers in developing and maintaining an effective safety and health program. Additionally, OSHA consultants can also provide safety training for both the employer and employees on-site or off-site subject to approval.

OSHA Coverage

OSHA covers all private sector workers in all 50 states. State and local government workers only have OSHA coverage if they work in states that have OSHA-approved programs. Self-employed workers and workers protected by other federal agencies such as the Mine Safety and Health Administration, are not covered by OSHA.

Employer Responsibilities

In relation to OSHA compliance, employers have a responsibility to provide a safe working environment to all of their employees.

Providing Safety Training to Employees

Employers are responsible for providing workers with the knowledge and skills required to perform all work-related tasks while ensuring their safety. While educating and training all workers to follow OSHA’s standards, employers must provide safety training in a language and vocabulary workers can understand.

Effective safety and health programs are critical tools that not only educate workers but also spread awareness and understanding on how to identify, report, and control workplace hazards. In providing effective safety education and training, specific action items must be observed:

Provide program awareness training

Knowing the program’s structure, plans, and procedures, ensures that everyone can develop, implement, and improve the program.
Inform managers and supervisors about their roles in the program

Employers and managers are responsible for workers’ safety. Without the proper training and knowledge, higher-ups may unwittingly put workers at risk. Providing training and being clear about their role in these safety programs ensure that they are well prepared in the performance of their duties
Train workers on their specific roles in the safety and health program

As the program evolves, additional formal training may be required to ensure that all employees are able to incorporate updated safety practices in their daily performance of work.

Train workers on hazard identification and controls

To effectively eliminate hazards or identify them before they get worse, workers must be provided training on hazard recognition and control.

Providing a Safe Work Environment

A comprehensive safety training program can only do so much if the workplace remains chock-full of hazards. For this reason, one of the most important duties of the employer is to eliminate preventable workplace hazards.

Employers are required to inform workers of their rights and responsibilities by posting the OSHA poster. Employers must also use color codes, labels, or signages to give appropriate warning to workers who may be exposed to hazards upon entering a specific work area.

Below are OSHA’s designated color recommendations when informing workers of potential hazards:

  • Danger
    This is used to alert workers of immediate risk or dangers. According to OSHA, all safety signals should be red (or mostly red) for maximum visibility.
  • Warning
    An orange warning sign is for moderate risks not considered as urgent as red danger signs.
  • Caution
    This sign is used for potential risks in the workplace.
  • Biological Hazard
    Because of the unique risks that biohazard dangers present, they are separated into another category with a fluorescent orange or orange-red color.

OSHA has also established safety codes that should be used when physical hazards are present in the facility:

  • Red
    This color should be used for fire-related hazards. This pertains to areas where there are open flames and/or flammable materials that could easily ignite or explode. 
  • Yellow
    This color should be used for hazards related to striking, falling, slipping and tripping

OSHA borrows from the American National Standards Institute’s (ANSI) color-coding scheme to provide workers instructions aimed at maximizing safety. Aside from the warning signs, the following colors are also recommended for workplace use:

  • Green
    This color is primarily used to notify people of the proper exits when they need to immediately evacuate.
  • Blue
    Blue is used to provide information which doesn’t necessarily have to be safety- or hazard-related.
  • Black & White
    This color is used to point workers towards regular entrances and exits, as opposed to green which is used for emergency egresses.

Compliance with OSHA Standards

Aside from providing adequate safety training and a safe work environment, employers must also comply with OSHA’s standards to minimize the risk of worker injuries and fatalities.

Employers have a responsibility to report any work-related death or accident, as well as any fatalities leading to work-related hospitalizations, within 8 hours. They also need to keep an updated record of work-related injuries and illnesses if they have 10 or more employees. Minor injuries that can be remedied with first aid do not need to be recorded.

Employees have the right to access the log of work-related injuries and illnesses (OSHA Form 300), including the summary of employee medical records and exposure records to individual workers. For OSHA inspection purposes, employers need to examine workplace conditions regularly and ensure compliance with OSHA standards. The name of an authorized employee representative must be submitted to accompany OSHA’s compliance officer during inspections.

For non-compliance or partial compliance after an inspection, employers are required to post OSHA citations, until the violation has been corrected, near the area where violation has been identified. Once cited violations have been corrected (within OSHA’s set deadline) an abatement verification documentation must be submitted.

An abatement is the correction of a violation related to safety that led to an OSHA citation. To resolve the violations, employers must certify or prove that the violation identified by the compliance officer has been successfully corrected. Employers must inform affected employees of the correction that has taken place, and must allow workers to examine and adapt the changes stated in the documents sent to OSHA. Lastly, employers should use tags for any movable equipment or machinery to alert employees of the hazard (if applicable).

Once submitted, OSHA will then indicate any penalties and will require abatement plans and progress reports to ensure effective correction of cited violation/s.

Employers are also prohibited to discriminate against workers who have filed complaints against employers. OSHA has a Whistleblower Protection Act designed to ensure that employees are not treated unfairly by employers they filed complaints against. Below are possible employer actions from which employees are protected under OSHA’s whistleblower protection act:

  • Firing or laying off
  • Demoting
  • Denying overtime or promotion
  • Disciplining
  • Denying benefits
  • Failing to hire or rehire
  • Intimidation or harassment
  • Making threats
  • Reassignment to a less desirable position or actions affecting prospects for promotion (such as excluding an employee from training meetings)
  • Reducing pay or hours
  • Subtle discriminatory actions, such as isolating, ostracizing, mocking, or falsely accusing the employee of poor performance
  • Blacklisting (intentionally interfering with an employee’s ability to obtain future employment)
  • Constructive discharge (quitting when an employer makes working conditions intentionally intolerable for the employee)

After a complaint against an employer has been made by an employee, OSHA conducts an interview with the employee or complainant to determine the gravity and need for a formal investigation. If evidence proves the claims of the complainant, OSHA can compel the employer to rehire the employee and provide appropriate support.

Employee Rights and Responsibilities

The creation of OSHA gave workers a government mandated right to a safe environment where all hazards are removed or controlled. Practicing safety in the workplace, however, is a joint effort. Employees must know their responsibilities and work alongside their employers to implement a culture of safety for the benefit of both parties.

Employee Rights

For workplace hazards, violations of OSHA standards, or violations of the OSH Act, workers have the right to request an OSHA inspection anonymously. Workers also have the right to contact OSHA regarding the results of the requested inspection, along with other safety details related to their workplace, including safety measures and records of work-related accidents and illnesses.

Employees can also ask NIOSH to examine and disclose information regarding the substances used and present in the workplace. If workers are exposed to toxic substances, they have the right to access chemical records and observe the monitoring and measuring of these substances. Under certain situations where there is immediate risk or danger, employees have the right to refuse to go to work.

Employees have the right to be notified of any violations of standards in the workplace (abatement-related concerns), as well as any changes made in the abatement period. Workers can also dispute any citations made by OSHA to the employer.

If employees experience adverse consequences from employers for engaging in OSHA-protected activities, employees are entitled to file a complaint with OSHA.

Employee Responsibilities

Though much of the safety burden may fall on the employer, employees are not exempt from responsibilities under the OSHA initiative and are expected to:

  • read and follow all safety materials provided by employers, including safety information posters around the workplace;
  • follow safe work practices as explained and demonstrated in safety training;
  • be vigilant and pay attention to safety process updates from their employer and OSHA;
  • report to work in a fit and stable condition and avoid work if under the influence of alcohol and other recreational drugs that may affect their cognitive functions;
  • report identified occupational hazards and/or potential hazards to their employer for quick resolution;
  • cooperate with OSHA compliance officers during workplace inspections; and
  • exercise the rights provided by OSHA responsibly

While OSHA sets standards, provides guidelines, and offers assistance to businesses looking to improve their safety records, the key to creating a safe workplace ultimately depends on employers and employees working together and understanding that safety always comes first.

Author

Shine Colcol

SafetyCulture Staff Writer

Shine has been professionally writing about virtually anything since her internship for a digital publisher of niche blogazines. She is passionate about building a culture of continuous improvement in the environmental, health, safety, and quality space through well-researched, engaging, and impactful content.