Special Report: A Quick Introduction to the World of OSHA

Special Report: A Quick Introduction to the World of OSHA

Even if employers aren't fully aware of it, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is something they should learn about – because its rules almost certainly apply to them. The Occupational Safety and Health Act covers many private sector employers as well as their workers. Some small businesses are exempt, such as those with fewer than 10 employees or those determined to be in low-hazard industries – but it's important for every employer to check their company’s status.

Created by President Richard Nixon in 1970, OSHA has a mission to make sure no worker ever has to decide between his life and his job. Under OSHA, employers are required to provide safe and healthy workplaces for their workers. Since OSHA was created, the number of workplace deaths and injuries has dropped 65 percent. Before OSHA, an estimated 14,000 workers, or 38 a day, were killed on the job. In 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the number of fatalities has dropped to roughly 4,500, or about 12 workers per day. Since that time, U.S. employment has almost doubled to over 130 million workers. Serious workplace injuries and illnesses have also dropped from 11 per 100 workers in 1972 to 3.5 per 100 workers in 2010. Still, improvements can be made – each year more than 3.3 million workers suffer a serious injury or illness as a result of their job, and millions more have been exposed to toxins that may cause serious illness many years from now.

Employers should keep in mind that workers who are hurt or killed aren't just tragedies – they also impact the bottom line. Occupational injuries and illnesses end up costing employers more than $53 billion every year in workers' compensation alone. That doesn't include other costs such as lost productivity, employee replacement and training, and the time spent in investigations following injuries. Those expenses can double the bill.

The Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act covers the vast majority of workers – both public and private. OSHA covers most private sector employers and workers in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and other U.S. jurisdictions, either directly through Federal OSHA or through an OSHA-approved state plan. State plans are just as rigorous as federal plans (they are required to be at least as effective as the Federal OSHA program) and the OSH Act encourages states to develop and operate their own job safety and health programs. The states that have OSHA-approved state programs are Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming. Puerto Rico also has its own OSHA-approved program.

Know the Implications

So, most employers are impacted by the OSH Act at either the state or the federal level – but what does that really mean? To start, employers must learn about OSHA safety and health standards and make sure their workplaces follow the rules. If they do find safety or health problems in their workplaces, they must be corrected. OSHA also requires employers to attempt to eliminate or reduce hazards by making changes in working conditions rather than asking employees to wear protective equipment such as masks, gloves or earplugs. This sometimes means switching to safer chemicals used in the workplace, implementing processes to trap harmful fumes, or using ventilation systems to clean the air.

OSHA also demands that employers prominently display an official poster that describes worker rights and the employer's responsibilities under the OSH Act. Workers must also be informed about chemical hazards they may face on the job through training, labels, alarms, color-coded systems, chemical information sheets and other methods. Safety training also needs to be provided to workers in a language and vocabulary they understand.

Many of the OSHA rules are about recording information and making sure it's available to employees – even if it's bad news. Workers can receive copies of the results from tests and monitoring done to measure hazards as well as any workplace medical records. Data about injuries and illness in the workplace must be posted where workers can see them.

Accurate records of work-related injuries and illnesses must be kept, and tests such as air sampling must be performed. Workers can't be charged for their personal protective equipment (most of which must be paid for by the employer), and employers must provide hearing exams or other medical tests required to meet OSHA standards. Employers must notify OSHA within eight hours of a workplace fatality or within 24 hours of a work-related hospitalization, amputation or loss of an eye.

OSHA specifically gives employees rights that employers should be aware of. Workers have the right to file a complaint with OSHA in order to get their workplace inspected and they must receive information and training about hazards they may face on the job.

Even if the list of requirements for employers seems overwhelming, the good news is that OSHA is eager to offer assistance. OSHA has an on-site consultation program that offers free and confidential safety and health advice to businesses in all 50 states. It's mostly geared toward helping small- and mid-sized businesses. Of those helped in the last year, 57 percent had fewer than 26 employees.

How Safety Programs Can Work

For Grenzebach Corp., working with the consultation program made a significant difference in the construction company's safety. Since 2013, the company has cut its incident rate by more than two-thirds. More significantly, the company went more than a year without a recordable incident while it was in the program. "As a company, we are spending less money on injuries, lost time and lost production," Ken Pinkerton, the company's quality, safety and environmental manager, said.

Because Grenzebach Corp. is based in Georgia, it was able to take advantage of OSHA's collaboration with Georgia Tech University, the 21(d) Consultation Program. By performing nearly 50 training seminars, Georgia Tech has educated more than 24,000 workers, managers and employers and performed roughly 280 hazard surveys. These surveys found more than 4,000 hazards affecting more than 103,000 employees. The savings from these efforts? More than $42.5 billion.

On a national level, the consultation program has done even more. Last year, consultants helped employers eliminate more than 140,000 hazards, protecting 3.3 million workers from possible injury or death.

OSHA also has an Outreach Training Program to assist both workers and employers. The program teaches how to recognize, avoid, abate, and prevent safety and health hazards in the workplace. The program (which offers 10-hour or 30-hour classes) also provides information about workers' rights and employers' responsibilities. The 10-hour class informs workers about common job-related safety and health hazards, while the 20-hour class is more appropriate for supervisors.

Nonprofit organizations can also apply for the Susan Harwood Training Grant Program.

The program provides training and education to workers and employers about safety in the workplace, and targets underserved and low-literacy groups as well as workers in high-hazard industries. Since 1978, 2.1 million workers have been trained through this grant program.

Employers should also be aware that as workplaces change, OSHA changes too. The administration is currently working toward creating a standard to prevent and reduce incidents of workplace violence, and has just released a new ruling for preventing beryllium exposure to workers, which will take effect for employers in a year. The OSHA website offers employers an easy way to see what changes may affect them.

While the list of rules employers in high-hazard industries must follow to stay in compliance with OSHA is long, employers may find that following all of those many, many rules might be worth it. The result is likely a safer workplace, less money lost to injury and reduced productivity, and a happier workforce.

Our firm provides the information in this e-newsletter for general guidance only, and does not constitute the provision of legal advice, tax advice, accounting services, investment advice, or professional consulting of any kind. The information provided herein should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional tax, accounting, legal, or other competent advisers. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a professional adviser who has been provided with all pertinent facts relevant to your particular situation. The information is provided "as is," with no assurance or guarantee of completeness, accuracy, or timeliness of the information, and without warranty of any kind, express or implied, including but not limited to warranties of performance, merchantability, and fitness for a particular purpose.

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