The Occupational Safety and Health Act

The primary federal law that governs health and safety practices in both governmental industries and the private sector, the Occupational Safety and Health Act works to ensure that all employers keep their employees safe in the workplace. Conditions dictated by the Act include, among other things, toxic chemicals, damaging noise levels, and excessive weather conditions. The Act is outlined in the United States Code Title 29: Chapter 15. To explore this concept, consider the following Occupational Safety and Health Act definition.

Definition of Occupational Safety


  1. The safety, health, and welfare of people in a work environment.
  2. The protection of employees against workplace accidents, injuries, illnesses, and fatalities.


1970   The Occupational Safety and Health Act signed into law by Richard M. Nixon.

History of the Occupational Safety and Health Act

Prior to the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (“the Act”) in 1970, the government put very little effort into the issue of workplace safety. With the mid-20th century increase in usage of heavy-duty machinery in manufacturing, the number of employee accidents, injuries, and fatalities saw a sharp increase. With no statutory requirements, most employers found it cheaper to replace injured and deceased employees than to implement new safety standards.

Following the Civil War, as the railroad was pushed across the country, life insurance was made available to railroad and factory workers, marking the first improvement to employee safety. The first safety legislation was passed by Congress in 1893. This Safety Appliance Act required that safety equipment be readily available on site in the workplace. Following quickly on the heels of the Safety Appliance Act, Congress established the United States Bureau of Mines to research safety in the mines. Although the Bureau of Mines had no authority to impose safety regulations, many states began taking workplace safety more seriously, and began enacting worker’s compensation laws.


The Act created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) within the purview of the U.S. Department of Labor. OSHA was given the authority to set and enforce workplace safety standards necessary to protect workers on the job site. The Act also created the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, an independent commission tasked with reviewing and ruling on contested citations or penalties assigned by OSHA. Additionally, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (“NIOSH”) was created as a result of the Act. Under the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), NIOSH is responsible for conducting research and making recommendations for the prevention of workplace illness and injury.

Overview of the Occupational Safety and Health Act

The Act was passed to assure every working person is kept safe from known hazards, and is broken down into different sections, each of which outlines certain requirements. For example, Section 5 is the “General Duty Clause,” which requires all employers to:

  1. Maintain safe working conditions and practices necessary to keep employees safe
  2. Become familiar and comply with safety standards applicable to their workplace
  3. Ensure employees have personal safety equipment when necessary for their health and safety

Section 8 of the Act pertains to reporting that is required by employers. It mandates that employers report within 8 hours if a worker dies as a result of a work related incident. It also requires employers to report if more than three employees are hospitalized due to a work-related incident. Section 8 also gives OSHA inspectors to enter the workplace for inspection and investigation during regular business hours.

Section 11 of the Act prohibits employers from taking action against employees who have been injured or who have made reports concerning safety in the workplace. Section 11 prohibits employers from retaliating against or discharging workers whose complaint led to an OSHA inspection.

Violating the Occupational Safety and Health Act

Violating provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act can mean serious consequences for the employer. The maximum penalty, as of 2015, is $7,000 for each “serious” violation, and may be as high as $70,000 for repeated or deliberate violations. Other penalties may include suspension of the employer’s business license or operating license.

Who the Act Covers

The Act covers most private sector employers in the United States, as well as employers of the federal government. While state and local government workers are not covered by the federal OSHA legislation, most are covered by occupational health and safety laws in their specific jurisdictions. Other exceptions to OSHA regulations may include farm employers, and employers regulated by another agency, such as the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Workers can discover whether they are covered by the Act by visiting OSHA’s website.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Authority – The right or power to make decisions, give orders, or to control something or someone.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.