The Occupational Safety & Health Administration, more commonly known as OSHA, is a division of the U.S. Department of Labor, and is responsible for ensuring healthy and safe workplaces in America. (England has an equivalent in the HSE).

On December 29, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon signed into law the Occupational Safety and Health Act. This led directly to the formation of OSHA the next year. Since it's inception, the number of occupational deaths has decreased by half, and the number of injuries on the job has decreased by 40% - in 1999, there were 5.7 million injuries related to the job (6.3 workers per 100), and 6,023 deaths directly related to the job.

A number of US states have their own OSHA programs: Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virgin Islands, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming. Three of the 26, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York, cover only public employees. The state programs must have standards at least as stringent as the federal program, but may be tougher. The first states to run their own programs, South Carolina, Montana, and Oregon, started their programs at the end of 1972. On January 20, 1978, the Supreme Court released a decision requiring the state programs to have enough staffing to be "at least as effective" as the federal program.

Workplaces are required to post the official OSHA poster where all employees have access to it. The poster contains information on an employee's rights in regards to their health and safety, and a number to call to contact OSHA if they have questions or see problems.

OSHA regularly inspects workplaces, looking at safety issues. They look for accidents just waiting to happen - items stacked too high and at odd angles, fire exits being blocked, and other serious hazards. They also try and address employee complaints. Violations of OSHA standards can result in warnings, for less serious violations, to fines of $7,000 for more serious ones - and repeated violations can increase the fine up to $70,000.

OSHA also requires employers in non-exempt areas to keep track of all injuries that occur in the workplace. Workplaces in low-hazard industries such as finance, retail, or insurance are exempt.

Not all people have been in agreement about the value of OSHA. The numbers don't lie, showing that OSHA has continued to improve workplace safety. That hasn't prevented congress from reducing the budget from time to time, often requiring the agency to reduce the number of inspections in can make. Others complain that the costs of complying with OSHA standards make it difficult to start a business in certain areas.

Their website is at

Notable standards set due to OSHA:

June 23, 1978 - created a standard dealing with cotton dust, to protect 600,000 workers from byssinosis, or "brown lung". Since then, cases have declined from 12,000 to 700.

November 14, 1978 - the lead standard was established, reducing the permissible exposure by three-fourths, affecting 835,000 workers.

September 12, 1980 - a fire protection standard for the workplace established, setting rules for on-the-job fire brigades which put out 95 percent of worksite fires.

November 25, 1983 - set communication standards requiring employers to label toxic materials, and provide training in using and handling them, for the manufacturing industry, and in 1987, other industries were added.

September 1, 1989 - standard issued for lockout/tagout of hazardous energy sources and equipment to protect 39 million workers from injury or death caused by unexpected startup of equipment - prevents about 120 deaths, and 50,000 injuries per year.

January 14, 1993 - set standard requiring a permit dealing with confined spaces at 240,000 workplaces, helping prevent 50 deaths and more than 5,000 serious injuries per year.

November 14, 2000 - ergonomics standard set to help prevent 460,000 musculoskeletal disorders among over 102 million workers.

OSHA has done a good deal of good work to protect the working man. But in Ohio at least, OSHA is expected to be self-funding, as the agency is managed by the states. Inspectors are not terribly well-paid, and are often in very short supply. One political trick is to pass a law offering a very high standard of protection then employ so few inspectors the standards are essentially meaningless. At least until someone gets hurt. Then the inspectors swarm. For example, the 1991 Hamlet, North Carolina chicken processing plant fire killed twenty-five and injured fifty-one employees who could not escape as fire doors had been chained shut to keep people from using them to take an unauthorized break. The plant had not been inspected in the eleven years of operation. At the time North Carolina had only three inspectors to cover the entire state, which meant that if they did nothing else industrial sites could not expect more than one inspection every twenty years.

The simple fact is that most OSHA inspectors are overworked in the extreme. They only show up at a site after an accident, or after a complaint is filed. Filing a complaint can be used by disgruntled employees or unions as a harassment technique, though it would be wrong to assume all complaints are illegitimate. I have seen an extension ladder extended across an empty swimming pool as a makeshift scaffold for work. Calling it 'unsafe' is a major understatement. Sometimes doing things right takes time and costs money, and for many contractors and employers money is the only value. On another occasion I refused to use a scaffold with major cracks visible on the boards. Less than twenty minutes later another worker used said scaffold, the boards broke and so did his leg after a ten foot fall. I have seen ladders used with major cracks and cords so taped up that a short to ground was only a matter of time. While most contractors (at least those I have worked for) are serious about safety the simple fact is some people will never care.

All of the jobs I have worked where an OSHA inspection took place were large jobs, and always after a complaint or accident, as in the above-mentioned scaffold failure. In each case the response was the same. The OSHA inspector headed to the General Contractor's trailer to present his credentials. There the GC attempted to delay the inspector as long as possible. Meanwhile word went out among all the sub-contractors. Our foremen were dispatched to shut down the job. We put away all tools, wrapped up all extension cords, stacked ladders and locked everything up, then went out to the job trailer to play cards and shoot the breeze until the inspector finished and left the site.

The reason for that is simple. Confronted with an empty job site, after an accident or complaint the inspector who sees no one working at all becomes extremely pickayune. Every single tiny violation he or she finds is written up. As workers, we were glad to be in the trailer. Employees are expected to refuse to work in any situation which seems unsafe. The burden of proof is on the employee, and if a violation is found both the employee and employer are fined with fines of $500 or more common. The fine is supposed to encourage employees to refuse unsafe matters. But I guarantee the workers who refused to work on that horizontal extension ladder twelve feet above an empty swimming pool would not have worked for long had they refused. The truth is once in a while you can say 'no' to a responsible contractor. But consistent refusals and anal retentive attention to accident reports (cut fingers and the like) are taken into account when it comes time to man-down the job. Nobody says anything if your cut needs stitches. But if it does not, you're just supposed to grin and bear it.

The simple fact is that nobody on a job wants to see OSHA. They can't be there often enough to shut down the fly-by-night guys, and if they find something it will cost you money. If you are working when they come by, they're more likely to find something. Nevertheless, they do contribute to worker safety. Damaged ladders (which may not be repaired although some repairs are easy and safe) are taken out of service at the end of the job, if not right away. Bad extension cords are taken out of service as well as defective scaffold parts. Ground Fault Circuit interrupters are installed in all temporary power outlets are always used, and believe me they would not be were it not for OSHA and other regulations. Also the standards they establish can be used to prosecute unsafe contractors after an accident. The owner who ordered the fire doors chained shut received a twenty year sentence, less than one year per fatality, but a powerful message nonetheless. Worker fatalities and serious injuries have fallen steadily since OSHA was established. It isn't perfect, but nothing out there is better.

Any employee injury, however small is supposed to be written up and Workman's compensation paperwork filed. Your employer will tell you this, but he does not really mean it. Small injuries are very common in construction, and they seem to come in bunches. In 15 years I've had three injuries significant enough to file a claim. Two involved around three stitches, one a week off with a sore back. In the real world, even seeing blood isn't enough. Only when you see below the skin or the bleeding won't stop do you file. Afterword you will be contacted by the ambulance chasers.

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