The passage of the Occupational Safety Health (OSH) Act in 1970 revolutionized workplace safety standards and provided American workers with a reasonable assurance of a safe working environment.
Prior to the OSHA, legislation regarding workplace safety was weak, at best. By passing this legislation, the federal government announced its intention to take a more active role in workplace health and safety standards, which it continues to do through OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Although the OSH Act introduced sweeping reforms for workplaces, Congressional leaders were savvy enough to realize that full compliance with the legislation and ongoing OSHA requirements wasn't practical for certain employers. In some cases, OSH Act compliance could even become counterproductive, working against established safety standards that exceed OSHA requirements.
Subsequently, the OSH Act exempted a handful of employers from the legislation. These exemptions weren't meant to encourage the continuation of unsafe work practices, but to offer relief for employers whose circumstances would make compliance overly burdensome or impractical.
The OSH Act defines an employer as "any person engaged in a business affecting commerce who has employees, but does not include the United States or any state or political subdivision of a State." So by definition, this legislation covers a lot of ground – nearly all U.S. employers with the exception of federal and state employees. However, the OSH Act established a similar (but separate) program for federal employees, and for state and local government employees located in states that participate in an OSHA-approved plan.
- Self-employed individuals are exempted from the OSHA Act, but only to the extent that they are the business' sole employee. Once a self-employed individual hires an employee, the business becomes subject to normal OSHA regulations.
- Family farms are also excluded from the OSH Act. The stipulation is that the farm must only employ members of the owner's immediate family. Extended family members and hired hands are covered by OSHA.
- Employers with working conditions that are regulated by other federal laws and agencies. Transportation employers typically fall into this category as well as mining operations, nuclear energy plants, and other closely regulated employers.
- State and local government employees in states that don't have OSHA-approved plans are excluded from OSH Act coverage.