Occupational safety and health (OSH) is a right and a responsibility. It is a privilege that many people didn’t get a chance to experience. Indeed, the history leading up to the concept of OSH we uphold today reveals a rather ugly narrative of deaths, injuries, mistreatments, injustice, and disagreements among and between lawmakers, business owners, and labor unions.
Today, employers and employees can enjoy the protection brought about by OSH and labor laws. What’s more, OSH standards have undeniably become more inclusive and all-encompassing compared with the earlier concepts of safety.
While in the past, safety from machinery and hazards related to the physical environment were emphasized, people have grown to recognize less obvious risk factors, including exposure to chemicals and pollution, mental stress, unhealthy work culture and relationships, and the like. Interventions have also revolutionized from highlighting emergency response measures to promoting practices that mitigate and prevent the occurrence of hazards.
However, aside from protection and enjoying the extensive benefits of OSH, employers and employees also have a share of duties that they must fulfill and OSH violations they must avoid.
If you are an employer or an employee, this guide is written for you. Here, we will talk about five essential steps that you can take if you wish to maximize the privileges and protection that appropriate OSH programs can offer. This article will also guide you through some practical and doable OSH activities, like selection of proper workwear, that are supported by OSH standards and laws.
- Step 1. Be oriented with the legal framework of occupational safety and health
- 1.1. International Labour Standards
- 1.2. Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970
- 1.3. USA Employment & Labor Laws
- 1.4. State Laws and State Plans
- Step 2. Be familiar with relevant OSH actors and their roles
- 2.1. Secretary of Labor
- 2.2. OSH Administration
- 2.3. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
- 2.4. OSH Review Commission
- 2.5. Employers and Employees
- Step 3. Create avenues for collaborative discussions and planning
- Step 4. Be informed of work-related hazards, risk levels, and best safety practices
- 4.1. Hazard and Risk Assessments
- 4.2. Equipment Procurement and Maintenance
- 4.3. Personal Protective Equipment
- 4.4. Ergonomics
- Step 5. Establish a company OSH policy statement
Step 1. Be oriented with the legal framework of occupational safety and health
Without a legal framework, any attempt to promote occupational safety cannot be sustainable. Binding policies are the backbone of interventions as critical as OSH, which is why it’s necessary to at least be familiar with these policies.
1.1. International Labour Standards
Before we delve into binding federal or local policies, let’s briefly look into a very important component in the legal framework of OSH: the OSH standards set by the International Labour Organization (ILO).
The ILO is a tripartite UN agency established in 1919 with the mission to set labor standards, develop policies, and initiate programs that promote decency in the workplace. ILO’s very Constitution indicates its principle of protecting workers from any disease or injury that their employment could cause.
In 1981, this principle was expanded and established as a set of guidelines through the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981. These guidelines were adopted by ILO member countries and were further improved recently through the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006.
1.2. Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970
The USA is a key player in pioneering OSH. Even before the ILO convention in 1981, the USA enacted its Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, signed by then President Richard Nixon.
This Act has since become the primary guiding framework for states, employers, and employees in the USA. Also, over the years, this Act has had several amendments in order to accommodate jurisdictional changes, agency name changes, and designation of new or additional roles to concerned agencies, among others.
The main purpose of this Act, as stipulated in the law itself, is to “assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women; by authorizing enforcement of the standards developed under the Act; by assisting and encouraging the States in their efforts to assure safe and healthful working conditions; by providing for research, information, education, and training in the field of occupational safety and health; and for other purposes.”
1.3. USA Employment & Labor Laws
Occupational safety is not limited to having safe working conditions. Instead, it covers the overall welfare of workers, especially against unfair or abusive practices.
In the USA, there are various employment and labor laws aside from the OSH Act that promote the rights of workers or particular members of the workforce. The figure below is a summary of these laws that have been enacted in the USA:
1.4. State Laws and State Plans
Most states in the USA have enacted their own OSH laws. This is supported by the federal OSH law, and states have the freedom to amend their law’s content and coverage as long as no provision of the federal law is disregarded.
States may also create state plans in order to enforce safety practices and programs. State plans, as defined by the US Department of Labor, are “OSHA-approved workplace safety and health programs operated by individual states or US territories.”
Step 2. Be familiar with relevant OSH actors and their roles
There are several key actors in the enforcement, regulation, and review of the OSH Act and OSH practices. OSH is a concern of both companies and every level of the government, which is why every level also has its own roles or duties. In this section, we will briefly look into who these key OSH actors are and what their roles primarily involve.
2.1. Secretary of Labor
The Secretary of Labor carries the duty of spearheading the enforcement of the OSH Act. When there are modifications in consensus standards that relate to OSH, it is the Secretary who can officially designate the modifications upon consulting with appropriate federal agencies. See OSH Act of 1970 Section 3, Article 9.
2.2. OSH Administration
The OSH Administration or OSHA was created by the OSH Act to be the agency for establishing and enforcing standards. It also has the mandate to provide technical assistance or training as well as establish relationships with relevant organizations and agencies to put forward the goals of the OSH Act.
2.3. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is a US federal agency created under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under the US Department of Health and Human Services. Its primary mandate is to conduct relevant research and provide OSH education and training. It doesn’t have the power to enforce new standards, but it can make recommendations based on conducted studies. See OSH Act of 1970 Section 22.
2.4. OSH Review Commission
The OSH Review Commission functions as an independent federal agency and administrative court that handles trials and reviews of OSHA inspections. It is the body that decides on citations and penalties to be imposed on violators, all based on the results of inspections done by authorized OSHA compliance safety and health officers (CSHO). See OSH Act of 1970 Section 12.
2.5. Employers and Employees
Both employers and employees have the right to a safe and healthful work environment. When an employer receives a Citation and Notification of Penalty from OSHA, the employer has the right to contact the local OSHA area office and request an informal conference with the director to discuss the issue.
Employers also have the right to contest any citation they receive within 15 working days after receiving the citation. If no action is done within 15 days, the citation and corresponding penalty becomes final.
In terms of roles, employers and employees have a long list they must refer to. Below is a summary of these roles, but there could be more specific ones required by their local OSHA office.
- Ensure that safety and health are maintained at the workplace
- Provide safety training to employers using a language and vocabulary they understand
- Inform workers about hazards through training, labels, color-coded systems, chemical information sheets, etc.
- Provide workers with appropriate personal protective equipment
- Provide medical tests as required
- Prevent workplace harassment, violence, and unjust treatment
- Keep accurate records of work-related injuries and illnesses
- Post OSHA citations and injury & illness summary where workers can see them
- Notify OSHA of a workplace fatality within eight hours after the incident
- Notify OSHA of work-related hospitalizations, amputations, or loss of an eye within 24 hours after the incident
- Treat workers who exercise their OSH-related rights with no discrimination
- Receive training and information about hazards, preventive methods, and OSH standards applicable to their workplace
- Read and comply with all of their organization’s health and safety postings
- Use proper personal protective equipment and other devices and procedures necessary for their protection
- File complaints to OSHA about work-related injuries
- Cooperate with OSHA inspections
Step 3. Create avenues for collaborative discussions and planning
Initiating OSH-related discussions and planning is primarily a duty of employers. However, employees also have the right to participate and, therefore, must be provided with avenues to contribute rather than expecting them to simply cooperate with pre-established plans. This is fairly reasonable, especially because it is the employees who have regular exposure to work-related hazards.
Also, employees should be able to communicate their safety concerns as needed. Some workplaces, especially construction firms, hire safety managers to spearhead occupational safety programs, lead investigations, and address employees’ OSH-related concerns. If hiring a safety manager is not possible and is not required by the local OSH policies a company is governed by, there should be a reporting system or anything similar that can bridge employees’ safety concerns to their superiors.
Step 4. Be informed of work-related hazards, risk levels, and best safety practices
Accurate information is the most essential prerequisite of any OSH program and policy. This is why employers are required by law to ensure that their employees know what types of hazards are in their workplaces, especially on job sites where hazards are impossible to completely eliminate (e.g., construction sites, factories, mining areas, science laboratories, roadway jobs, etc.).
In the same way, when it is the employees who recognize an existing hazard that the employers might not be aware of, employees are encouraged to initiate and report so that appropriate steps can be taken and untoward incidents can be avoided.
4.1. Hazard and Risk Assessments
Every job site has a different set of hazards and varying levels of risks. Because of that, one cannot simply copy another company’s OSH program. Instead, companies must identify the hazards they’re faced with, determine the severity of these hazards, and craft plans based on their assessments.
In most workplaces, employers and employees can do hazard and risk assessments in-house. However, when necessary, employers can invite OSH officers or any other qualified team of professionals to provide these services. The results of these assessments should guide OSH planning as well as companies’ selection of which OSH best practices they should adopt.
4.2. Equipment Procurement and Maintenance
Machinery and equipment, especially the heavy and electricity-powered ones, naturally bring certain levels of hazards with them. As such, the equipment that companies use must always be incorporated into their OSH policies, systems, and programs.
One great way to avoid equipment-related incidents is to set safety criteria even before procurement. For example, for applicable types of equipment, say, heating equipment, a company may delimit their choices within items that have been certified by trusted testing companies or quality assurance agencies.
Companies must also have proper procedures in the event that an issue is found with a piece of equipment or equipment component. Companies can set up procedures for proper maintenance, repair, and replacement so that both employers and employees are guided even before any equipment-related issue occurs.
4.3. Personal Protective Equipment
Depending on the hazards present in a job site, employers and employees may be required by law to wear appropriate types of personal protective equipment or PPE. Some examples of PPE are high-visibility vests, flame-resistant shirts, hard hats, and sun shields.
There are guidelines in choosing personal protective equipment, and employers must be aware of them to avoid committing violations of standards. Some workers may also be required to wear PPE certified to be compliant with applicable guidelines of the American National Standards Institute.
One of the most doable OSH interventions, especially for office jobs, is converting to ergonomic choices. Ergonomics, also called human-factors engineering, is a broad concept that covers not only physical objects but also systems and processes so that they become more accommodating of human-related factors.
Employers who want to make their workplaces safer should consider ergonomics, which usually starts with opting for body-friendly office furniture over cheaper yet uncomfortable ones. If needed, they can also make changes in organizational matters to minimize stresses related to management styles, work relationships, and the like.
Step 5. Establish a company OSH policy statement
An OSH policy statement sets the tone for all the OSH plans and programs of a company. It serves as the localized binding and guiding reference of both employers and employees.
What should be included in a company’s OSH Policy Statement?
✔ the company’s commitment and accountability towards OSH, across all management levels
✔ specific responsibilities of the company, safety managers (if any), workers, and visitors in different phases of OSH
✔ budget source and allocation for OSH programs
✔ procedures for monitoring and evaluation of OSH objectives and programs
✔ procedures for the review and amendment of the OSH policy statement
In some cases, it might be necessary for workplaces to set up an OSH committee that will spearhead and reinforce the implementation of the OSH policy statement. If such a committee is set up, its duties must also be clearly defined in the policy.
The establishment of OSH policies and guidelines is a breakthrough for everyone in the workforce. For USA-based employers and employees, they can refer to the OSH Act of 1970 so they can get to know in detail their rights and responsibilities with respect to safety and health in the workplace. Some states also have local OSH laws that provide more specific provisions and requirements that must be met by employers and employees who are within their governance.
To promote occupational safety, employers and employees must be fully aware of their rights and duties. Companies should also initiate OSH plans and programs, including the conduct of hazard and risk assessments, planning based on the results of these assessments, and ensuring the participation of employees throughout every phase of OSH programs.
It is also highly recommended for companies to establish their own OSH policy statement, which should guide all OSH-related programs, budget allocation, program monitoring and evaluation, and any other concerns that may arise with regards to OSH.