What Is the Occupational Safety and Health Act?

The Occupational Safety and Health Act is a law passed by the U.S. Congress in 1970 to ensure safe workplace conditions around the country. It established the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which sets and enforces workplace health and safety standards.

Key Takeaways

  • The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 is a U.S. law establishing workplace standards to ensure that employees are protected from hazards that compromise their safety and health.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Act applies to most private sector employers and their workers, in addition to some in the public sector.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Act established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH).
  • OSHA serves as the enforcement arm of the act, applying fines and penalties to employers that violate its rules, standards, and guidelines.

Understanding the Occupational Safety and Health Act

Signed into law by President Richard Nixon in Dec. 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (commonly called the OSH Act) was enacted to create safe working conditions by authorizing standard work practices. Congress found that workplace personal injuries and illnesses contributed to a decline in production and wages, plus an increase in medical expenses and disability compensation. The act is designed to ensure that workers are protected from hazards that may affect their safety and health, such as exposure to toxic chemicals, damaging noise, thermal stressors, and unsanitary conditions.

To aid states and other U.S. territories in the adoption of safe and healthful working conditions, the act provided for related research, education, and training. Most states partially or fully control the occupational health and safety standards for their employees.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act established two major entities:

  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a division of the U. S. Department of Labor, which sets and enforces workplace health and safety standards
  • The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which conducts research and recommends solutions for the prevention of work-related illnesses and injuries.

The OSH Act covers most private-sector employers and their workers, in addition to some public-sector employers and workers in the 50 states and certain territories and jurisdictions under federal authority. Individuals not protected by the law include self-employed individuals, workers on small family farms, and those working in an industry regulated by a separate federal agency.

On September 9, 2021, President Joe Biden asked OSHA to draft an emergency temporary standard that mandates businesses with more than 100 workers to require vaccinations against COVID-19 or face weekly testing, and that businesses offer employees paid time off to get vaccinated.

What Does OSHA Do?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) acts as the enforcement arm of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Although the legislation gave OSHA the authority to create industry-specific guidelines, it also outlined a “general duty” clause, which applies to all employers in all industries. This clause, officially Section 5(a)(1) of the act, in effect serves as OSHA's mandate, stipulating that employers must provide a safe environment for their workers.

The general duty clause of the OSH Act officially reads: "Each employer (1) 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; (2) shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act."


The act also states: "Each employee shall comply with occupational safety and health standards and all rules, regulations, and orders issued pursuant to this Act which are applicable to his own actions and conduct."

In some parts of the country, an OSHA-approved state agency helps set and enforce job safety standards. But these standards must be at least as stringent as those of federal guidelines.

OSHA enforces its regulations and standards by conducting inspections of workplaces and work sites. Violators face penalties and fines, which are adjusted annually for inflation.

In 2021, infractions can incur penalties ranging from $975 to $13,653 per violation. In the most extreme cases—for what OSHA deems "willful or repeated" behavior—the maximum imposed goes as high as $136,532 per violation.

Fines Imposed on Employers for Violating OSHA Rules
 Type of Violation  Maximum Penalty
Serious
Other-Than-Serious
Posting Requirements
 $13,653 per violation
Failure to Abate  $13,653 per day beyond the abatement date
Willful or Repeated  $136,532 per violation
These penalties are current as of Jan. 2021. Source: OSHA

The size of the fine depends on the seriousness of the violation and the number of workers the company employs: Businesses with 10 or fewer employees might receive up to an 80% reduction in the penalty; those with 21 to 30 receive 50%. Those with more than 250 workers pay the full amount.